Why does the NSA need to collect your selfie or a photo of your kids? It turns out that the agency is collecting more online data from ordinary users, American and non-American, than foreign targets.  

Below is part of the startling report from The Washington Post:

Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided in full to The Post, were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.

Many of them were Americans. Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents. NSA analysts masked, or “minimized,” more than 65,000 such references to protect Americans’ privacy, but The Post found nearly 900 additional e-mail addresses, unmasked in the files, that could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S.residents.


Months of tracking communications across more than 50 alias accounts, the files show, led directly to the 2011 capture in Abbottabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, and Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. At the request of CIA officials, The Post is withholding other examples that officials said would compromise ongoing operations.

Many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless.

If analysts have described the information as “useless,” that begs the question: why is the government holding on to the data?

Robert Litt, general counsel to the director of National Intelligence said in response to the WaPo article: “These reports simply discuss the kind of incidental interception of communications that we have always said takes place under section 702 […] We target only valid foreign intelligence targets under that authority, and the most that you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people.”

Today on The Real Story, Gretchen Carlson spoke to Cedric Leighton, former NSA deputy director, for more insight.

Leighton agreed that selfies and the like shouldn’t be held onto unless the person is involved in an investigation. He said that in 99.9 percent of those instances that is not the case.

“[The NSA is] doing it because they believe that they need to establish an idea of the […] cyber landscape that’s out there. So they want get a feel for what is normal and a feel for what it abnormal,” he explained.

Leighton said strict guidelines on data collection need to be reinstated.

“As I grew up through this system, it was very clear that certain things were not to be collected, among them data from U.S. persons, unless you have a warrant,” he said.