The National Security Agency (NSA) [official website] has been collecting contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging programs around the world in an attempt to combat terrorism or other criminal activity, according a Washington Post report [text] Monday. The information about the collection came from senior intelligence officials and documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden [JURIST news archive]. Although the collection of contact lists would be illegal for the NSA to do from facilities in the US, the agency can bypass restrictions in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) [text] by intercepting contact lists from access points worldwide, none of which are on US territory. Online contact lists provide the NSA with more data than phone call records since the lists commonly include names, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information. The NSA then uses the contacts to track relationships and connections among foreign targets. NSA analysts are not permitted not search within the contacts database unless they can argue there is a valid foreign intelligence target in their search. However, the case is made either to the NSA itself or to others in the executive branch, as the bulk of oversea intelligence operations is under presidential control.
The revelations surrounding NSA surveillance programs such as this one and PRISM [JURIST backgrounder] have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. US Senators announced new legislation [JURIST report] last month in a bipartisan effort to reform surveillance laws. Earlier that month the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] urged the Obama administration [JURIST report] to curb the FBI's surveillance powers despite the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's [official website] release of a previously classified opinion justifying [JURIST report] the need for the NSA's surveillance program. In August the Council of Europe [official website] expressed concern [JURIST report] over the UK reaction to the exposure of the US surveillance program. In June the ACLU in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] filed suit [JURIST report] against the NSA challenging its recently revealed phone data collection. Although the president and top officials have defended the surveillance as a lawful counterterrorism measure, several US lawmakers have called for a review [JURIST report] of the government's surveillance activity in light of recent reports revealing phone and Internet monitoring. Lawmakers have also called for a criminal investigation into the activities of Snowden, who came forward in early June as the whistleblower in the NSA surveillance scandal [JURIST podcast]. JURIST Guest Columnist Christina Wells argues that the broad provisions of the Espionage Act [text], under which Snowden is charged, raise significant First Amendment concerns [JURIST op-ed].