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NSA to stop collecting some internet communications

Deb Riechmann
Associated Press

Washington — The National Security Agency said Friday it will no longer collect certain communications moving on the internet simply because they mention a foreign intelligence target, in a move applauded by privacy advocates.

The agency said it will now limit such collection to internet communications sent directly to or from a foreign target. It won’t permit intelligence officials to collect emails, texts and other communications between two people who are not targets of surveillance — but who mention a target by name.

The changes, first reported by The New York Times, are designed to reduce the chances of sweeping up communications of U.S. citizens or others in a way that some critics charged was overly broad. Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, U.S. intelligence agencies can conduct surveillance on only specific foreign targets outside the United States.

The NSA said an in-house review of Section 702 activities showed several “inadvertent compliance lapses.” It said such incidents were properly reported to Congress and the federal court overseeing foreign intelligence surveillance activities.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a leading NSA critic, said the practice of collecting information for mentioning a target was a “magnet for abuse.”

“This is something I’ve been working to get rid of for years and years,” Wyden told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.

Wyden commended the NSA for recognizing the problem and said he would work to make the changes part of law. Section 702 is set to expire at the end of this year and lawmakers are weighing its reauthorization.

Concern over the Americans’ communications renewed this year as the Trump administration accused the intelligence community of improperly revealing the names of Americans that came up through incidental collections.

In February, President Donald Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after saying he lied about phone conversations with a Russian diplomat. But Trump accused Susan Rice, former President Barack Obama’s security adviser, of illegally “unmasking” Flynn’s identity before details of the conversations were leaked to the press.

FBI Director James Comey has said the complaints about unmasking aren’t related to Section 702 of the foreign intelligence surveillance law.