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Is the NSA Browsing Your Browser History?

The top cybersecurity agency acknowledges buying internet users’ personal data.

By:  |  March 8, 2024  |    641 Words
GettyImages-1755654018 NSA

(Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The problem with intelligence agencies is that, sooner or later, they usually become obsessed with gathering as much information as they can, about as many people as they can. This brings the risk of essentially make everyone a suspect – or perhaps a potential threat. After all, surveillance of any kind should be and usually is carried out on specific individuals or groups that intelligence suggests are up to no good. The National Security Agency – NSA – has gone well beyond these carefully targeted methods, according to documents released by a top Republican.

On December 11, 2022, NSA Director Paul Nakasone sent a letter to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that included recently declassified documents showing that the intelligence agency has been purchasing information about American citizens’ online habits from data brokers. The information acquired by the NSA included websites visited and apps used by regular Americans.

NSA Stepping Over the Line?

Nakasone acknowledged that the data purchased by the NSA “may include information associated with electronic devices being used outside – and, in certain cases, inside – the United States.”

The NSA does not have the authority to collect information on American citizens who are in the United States and are not under suspicion of activities that pose a threat to national security. The agency has two missions: Cybersecurity and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). To fulfill the former mission, per the NSA website:

“NSA Cybersecurity prevents and eradicates threats to U.S. national security systems with a focus on the Defense Industrial Base and the improvement of our weapons’ security. Through our Cybersecurity Collaboration Center, NSA partners with allies, private industry, academics, and researchers to strengthen awareness and collaboration to advance the state of cybersecurity.”

The SIGINT mission is also explained:

“NSA provides foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT) to our nation’s policymakers and military forces. SIGINT plays a vital role in our national security by providing America’s leaders with critical information they need to defend our country, save lives, and advance U.S. goals and alliances globally.”

Additionally, the agency states: “NSA executes our missions consistent with authorities that specifically limit us to gathering information about international terrorists and foreign powers, organizations, or persons in support of a variety of U.S. national strategies.”

GettyImages-1466422948 Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Wyden has been battling the agency over its monitoring of US citizens’ internet habits for three years. In a January 25 letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, he wrote: “The U.S. government should not be funding and legitimizing a shady industry whose flagrant violations of Americans’ privacy are not just unethical, but illegal.” The “shady industry” referred to is data brokering – the buying and selling of internet users’ personal information.

An NSA spokesperson said, “At all stages, NSA takes steps to minimize the collection of U.S. person information, to include application of technical filters.” Yet, the direct purchasing of internet users’ data appears to contradict this claim. The agency seems to be infringing a right protected by the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, the first clause of which says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated … “

The NSA would no doubt argue that it is merely carrying out its national security missions and that the data of regular Americans are getting swept up in its intelligence gathering net. Whether that is the truth or not, those who are not guilty or not suspected of a crime should not have to think that their behavior, communications, or transactions are being monitored by the government. It is tantamount to government bureaucrats assuming that every ordinary American is possibly or probably guilty of something or may be in the future. The potential end result of such a mentality is scary.

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