The National Security Agency will stop intercepting many emails and other electronic communications concerning people with suspected links to terrorism, the New York Times reports.
The decision ends one of the NSA's more controversial spying programs, which allowed its agents to eavesdrop on Americans' emails and texts to and from people overseas that mention a foreigner under surveillance—so-called "about" messages. Because foreign nationals aren't subject to Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches, the practice was legal—at first.
The problem that ultimately led the NSA to discontinue the searches was in how the agency collects emails and other messages, the Times reports, citing officials familiar with the matter. Agents are apparently able to access bundles of messages from internet companies, some of which are only sent between two parties in the US and thus are subject to the Fourth Amendment. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees such secret spying, told the NSA that it could only continue the program if analysts didn't have access to the bundled messages.
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But NSA analysts continued to query the bundles against the court rules, the Times reports. The agency has since stopped following an in-house review of surveillance policies that "discovered several inadvertent compliance lapses," the NSA said in a Friday statement.
"Even though NSA does not have the ability at this time to stop collecting 'about' information without losing some other important data, the Agency will stop the practice to reduce the chance that it would acquire communications of US persons or others who are not in direct contact with a foreign intelligence target," according to the statement.
It's unclear whether the agency will try to find another way to monitor "about" messages to comply with the law, but the agency said it would continue to collect messages sent directly to or from terrorism suspects.
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