The NSA Is Probably Spying on You

by Sarah Hedgecock

No one is safe: The NSA reportedly spies on ordinary Internet users way more often than official targets, according to the Washington Post. Between 2009 and 2012, 90 percent of the people involved in conversations intercepted by the intelligence agency were apparently not official, legally declared targets. At least half appear to be American citizens. The paper reported the alarming news late Saturday after studying information from leaker extraordinaire Edward Snowden.

According to the Post, "Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations ... were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else." The leaked documents this time included 160,000 e-mails and lengthy instant-messaging conversations as well as 7,900 other documents taken from a total of 11,000 Internet accounts. Nearly half of those thousands of files contained names, e-mail addresses, or other information identified by the NSA itself as belonging to American citizens. Those 65,000 flagged references were all "minimized" – anonymized – by the agency to protect that privacy it seems to care so much about. But even so, the Post found at least 900 more unflagged references that could be strongly tied to U.S. citizens.

But it's not all horrible invasions of privacy: some valuable information was collected in the course of this round of surveillance. Among the discoveries, which the Post would understandably not explain in detail, were "fresh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that befell an unfriendly power, and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks." Other major discoveries were not cleared for publication in the paper due to the possibility of compromising ongoing top-secret spy operations. Information gathered in the timeframe under investigation also led directly to the capture of at least two terrorism suspects in the Middle East. Also captured: users' private thoughts, innocent musings, hopes, dreams. Documents with information and gossip on innocent people's private lives, rather than being discarded, were recorded and filed away anyway.

Don't worry: there are 318 million people in the United States, so your lengthy discussions on the latest episode of The Bachelorette probably weren't included in the surveillance sweep. On the other hand, 11,000 is a pretty big number of accounts. Maybe, just maybe, you should try not to talk so much behind the backs of your friends at the NSA. After all, privacy is only for individuals who are definitely not somehow tangentially linked to those people who actually deserve to be spied on. Right?