The ban was put in place in 2008

The Obama administration allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on American communications by overturning a 2008 ban on such behavior. 

According to a new report from The Washington Post, the Obama administration was granted permission from a surveillance court in 2011 to intercept Americans' emails and phone calls. The administration was also allowed to keep intercepted U.S. communications for a longer period of time -- the original order was only for five years, but was extended to six years. Under special circumstances, the data can be retained even longer.  

What's interesting is that the court banned the NSA's ability to do these kinds of searches in 2008, and it was requested by the government itself. 

But in 2011, the Obama administration asked that the ban be lifted. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) general counsel Robert S. Litt admitted that the NSA wanted to be able to search American communications without a warrant, public debate or any authority from Congress. With the ban lifted, the NSA could do so. 

So why exactly did the NSA want the ban lifted? According to Alex Joel, civil liberties protection officer at the ODNI, the NSA wanted this in case a U.S. citizen may have been a conspirator in a terrorist investigation. Lifting the ban meant that searches had to “reasonably likely to yield foreign intelligence information” -- not really be a sure thing. Which allowed for a broad spectrum of searches, and the results were subject to the NSA's privacy rules. 

This was quite an expansion in the authority of the NSA, and it went unnoticed for a long time. Many government authorities believe that a warrant shouldn't be needed if the NSA collects information in search of a foreign communication and accidentally collects an American communication. 

“If we’re validly targeting foreigners and we happen to collect communications of Americans, we don’t have to close our eyes to that,” said Litt. “I’m not aware of other situations where once we have lawfully collected information, we have to go back and get a warrant to look at the information we’ve already collected.”

The NSA intercepts over 250 million Internet communications each year under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Ninety-one percent are from U.S. Internet companies such as Google, and the rest come from companies that route Internet traffic to, from and within the U.S. 
The expanded search that comes from lifting the 2008 ban applies only to the downstream collection.

Clearly, the NSA has a "collect first, worry about privacy later" sort of deal, and this isn't the first time we've heard of it. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden uncovered the spying methods used by U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this year, which included collecting data from phones. This was used to fight terrorist attacks, but the public feared for their privacy after such revelations.

Just last week, Snowden uncovered more details about the NSA, saying that the NSA spends about $250 million USD to diminish international encryption standards (as well as products) so that it can decode what it wants. He also revealed that both American and British spy agencies pushed to gain back-door access to tech giants like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft. This went on for at least three years, and by 2012, Government Communications Headquarters had created new access opportunities with Google.

Source: The Washington Post

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