NSA = National Stalker Agency?

Filed Under: Law & order, Privacy

Eavesdropping image courtesy of ShutterstockIt was his first day on the job at the National Security Agency (NSA), so he did what anybody would do, if you define "anybody" as "somebody who completely ignores rules meant to protect the privacy of both foreign and US persons against federal abuse of surveillance powers": the new agent snooped on his former girlfriend.

In a letter [PDF] dated 11 September, NSA inspector general Dr. George Ellard detailed 12 investigations into such "intentional and and willful misuse" of spying tools by civilian and military NSA employees.

Two of the investigations are still open, Ellard wrote in his letter to the ranking member of the US Senate's Judiciary Committee, Senator Charles E. Grassley, while another allegation is being reviewed for possible investigation.

The agent who ambitiously jumped into illegal snooping on his first day on the job was a military member stationed at a site in the continental US, Ellard's letter says.

The unnamed subject queried six email addresses belonging to a former girlfriend - a US person - without authorization.

Why did he do it?

Well, he wanted to "practice on the system," he testified, and decided to use his former girlfriend as a cyber-information guinea pig.

A site review of the NSA's information collection systems - SIGINT - turned up his queries four days later.

The subject reportedly didn't get any information out of the system and hadn't read any US person's email. He received a reduction in grade, 45 days restriction, 45 days of extra duty, and half pay for two months.

Also, it was recommended that he not be given a security clearance.

SIGINT, or foreign Signals Intelligence, is intelligence gathered from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, including communications systems, radars, and weapons systems.

According to the NSA's description, SIGINT's mission is "specifically limited to gathering information about international terrorists and foreign powers, organizations, or persons" that provides "a vital window for our nation into foreign adversaries' capabilities, actions, and intentions."

Technically, checking on whether your spouse is cheating on you or whether somebody you bumped into at a bar is date-worthy is not part of the NSA's plan.

Nonetheless, seeking a vital window into their partners' escapades, sexual or other, is precisely the mission that some NSA employees have chosen to pursue.

More examples from Ellard's letter:

  • 2004: A civilian employee based overseas, upon returning to the US, checked out a foreign phone number she found in her husband's mobile phone because she suspected her husband had been cheating. She managed to eavesdrop on her husband's phone communications.
  • 1998 to 2003: In a case of serial snoopery, one civilian employee based overseas snooped on the telephones of nine foreign women over the course of five years. The tip-off came from another NSA employee who suspected the subject - an NSA civilian employee who was also her lover - of listening to her phone calls.
  • 2011 A subject ran her foreign-national boyfriend's phone number through the system and came up with some material, which she reviewed. She said that she was in the habit of entering foreign national phone numbers of people she met in social settings to ensure she wasn't "talking to 'shady characters'".

In at least 6 of the 12 instances reported by the inspector general, the matters were referred to the Department of Justice. In multiple instances, the NSA employees resigned or retired before being disciplined.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters that the seeming handful of NSA employees who abuse their powers are probably just "the tip of the iceberg" and that the real issue is, rather, the massive amount of surveillance that's actually legal for the NSA:

If you only focus on instances in which the NSA violated those laws, you're missing the forest for the trees. … The bigger concern is not with willful violations of the law, but rather with what the law itself allows.

As Mother Jones's Dana Liebelson commented recently, it seems that not a week goes by wherein we aren't provided with "a friendly reminder from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the government has found a new way to spy on us."

Liebelson outlined a dozen pending bills aimed at reining in the NSA's vast surveillance powers.

One of those bills - The Surveillance State Repeal Act (H.R. 2818) - would actually repeal the PATRIOT Act and the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA): the statutes from whence the NSA draws its broad spying powers.

The pending bills seek, Liebelson writes, to:

... keep the NSA from sweeping up phone records en masse, take the rubber stamp away from the top-secret spy court that approves surveillance requests, and allow tech companies to tell the public more about the government requests they receive for user data, among other things.

We wait to see what happens.

And all you former, current or future love interests of NSA employees - known, romantically enough, as "lovints" in NSA speak - be aware: the walls have ears.

Image of eavesdropping man courtesy of Shutterstock.

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9 Responses to NSA = National Stalker Agency?

  1. lonervamp · 700 days ago

    12 substantiated instances in 10 years. Not bad, really.

    • p0s · 700 days ago

      And if you actually believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you.

  2. Jack Wilborn · 700 days ago

    These violations should result in not only termination, but prosecution. I don't they are acting in our benefit with only reduction in grade and 1/2 pay. This is a line you do not cross without authorization.


  3. Andrew · 700 days ago

    As far as I am concerned the NSA should be shut down completely as I am sure there have been more than 10 situations of this nature.
    It's all very well to use this spying tool to protect your country but to Spy on your allies and countries that are friendly has to be a no no. Respect works both ways, so if you want respect USA think about the laws you are breaking with your allies and other friendly countries. Seriously do the decent thing and stop your spying with these countries and concentrate on the terrorist areas that we all know about and then you may find people and allies may respect your actions. What have you got to lose.

  4. Beth H · 700 days ago

    There indeed might be more than 12, however there ALWAYS are a small percentage of bad eggs, who abuse the system, in ANY profession.

    • Deramin · 700 days ago

      Which is why systems that allow this much power over others are inherently bad even if they are built for good purposes. It's not the the system in theory is bad, it's that human history shows we can't handle them.

  5. Steven · 700 days ago

    Its great NSA exist yet wasting taxpayer dollars on one's own interests is waste. Someone is out there enjoying the freedom of being hidden with the intent to do something that can hurt many people therefore they would expect the NSA to be gone just people who expect the police departments to be gone and jails and Antivirus companies to be gone and etc.

  6. Freida Gray · 700 days ago

    It seems as if the NSA has forgotten ( if they ever knew it to start with ) something that every child learns early in life.If you have a goal, doing things that accomplish that goal are better than doing those things that don't accomplish the goal.
    The NSA had a goal : locate people who could be terrorists.To accomplish that they sucked up information about who everybody had contact with on the internet & on the phone.This information told them where the people were,who they talked to,what sites they visited,how long they talked or visited the site,& where they went after they left the site.On the internet they were able to see people's public posts.The problem is that none of this information actually identified anyone as a terrorist.
    During this time the NSA collected all kinds of information about people except for what was actually said in phone conversations,e-mails,or public posts.The very information which could actually accomplished the goal got ignored.Instead, useless trivia was gobbled up & probably continues to be gobbled up.

  7. Bart · 699 days ago

    Wait until it happens to a Congress person, and then attention will be paid.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.