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E-Mail Surveillance Renews Concerns in Congress

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A National Security Agency (NSA) operation involving surveillance of American residents' communications, especially domestic email, is fueling debate in the U.S. Congress about its legal and logistical ramifications, with current and former officials calling such monitoring much broader than previously admitted.

Email has been a particularly thorny issue for the NSA because of technological problems in drawing a distinction between messages by U.S. citizens and foreigners. Several former intelligence officials note that email traffic from all over the world is frequently channeled through U.S.-based Internet service providers, and when the NSA monitors a foreign email address, it does not know when the person using that address will send messages to someone inside the United States. A representative of national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair says that due to the complicated nature of surveillance and the need to comply with the rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and "other relevant laws and procedures, technical or inadvertent errors can occur."

Agency advocates say the process of collecting millions of electronic messages by computer inevitably leads to the examination of innocent email. Such messages are supposed to be filtered out, but critics say the NSA is not doing a good enough job in this area. An anonymous former NSA analyst verifies that the agency used a secret database that archived foreign and domestic email and enabled analysts to read large volumes of messages to and from U.S. citizens, provided they fell within certain parameters and the citizens were not explicitly targeted in the queries. Officials acknowledge that the massive overcollection of U.S. citizens' communications can lead to a substantial number of privacy infringements, which has raised alarms in both the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress.

From The New York Times
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