With little fanfare, the National Security Agency dropped hundreds of pages worth of surveillance reports into the dead of night before Christmas Eve—some of which detailed U.S. citizens that were "inadvertently" swept up in the government's data dragnet.
As Americans were preparing to open holiday gifts, the agency quietly published a trove of declassified data spanning more than a decade of intelligence gathering. Those documents, required by the President's Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), were heavily redacted to protect disclosures of sensitive information.
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Entire swaths of text were blanked out, making it nearly impossible to determine specific names, programs or occurrences of privacy violations. However, the documents detailed a number of instances where analysts "erroneously" gathered information on U.S. citizens, or were at least guilty of shoddy practices.
In a 2012 quarterly report, for example, an analyst "forwarded in an email to unauthorized recipients the results of a raw traffic database query that included terms associated with "an unidentified U.S. citizen. The email was recalled, the report said, without providing further information.
In a separate 2013 document, the agency identified several instances where data was mishandled by unknown personnel. According to the entry, a file with "raw [signal intelligence] was improperly uploaded. Many of the breaches were attributed to lackadaisical data security, or unclear instructions that resulted in U.S. citizens accidentally having their privacy violated by the agency's acts.
In a lengthy preamble, the NSA took pains to state any monitoring of U.S. citizens was the result of "unintentional technical or human error."
The agency added that in those cases where a breach was intentional, "a thorough investigation is completed, the results are reported to the IOB and the Department of Justice as required, and appropriate disciplinary or administrative action is taken."
Still, the disclosures are unlikely to alleviate concerns about civil liberties that have reached a boil since last year, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed a sprawling network of classified surveillance activities.
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