The NSA Has Taken Over the Internet Backbone. We're Suing to Get it Back.

Every time you email someone overseas, the NSA copies and searches your message. It makes no difference if you or the person you're communicating with has done anything wrong. If the NSA believes your message could contain information relating to the foreign affairs of the United States – because of whom you're talking to, or whom you're talking about – it may hold on to it for as long as three years and sometimes much longer.

A new ACLU lawsuit filed today challenges this dragnet spying, called "upstream" surveillance, on behalf of Wikimedia and a broad coalition of educational, human rights, legal, and media organizations whose work depends on the privacy of their communications. The plaintiffs include Amnesty International USA, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and The Nation magazine, and many other organizations whose work is critical to the functioning of our democracy.

But the effect of the surveillance we're challenging goes far beyond these organizations. The surveillance affects virtually every American who uses the Internet to connect with people overseas – and many who do little more than email their friends or family or browse the web. And it should be disturbing to all of us, because free expression and intellectual inquiry will wither away if the NSA is looking over our shoulders while we're online.

The world first learned of the existence of upstream surveillance from whistleblower Edward Snowden's spying revelations in June 2013. Since then, official disclosures and media reports have shown that the NSA is routinely seizing and copying the communications of millions of ordinary Americans while they are traveling over the Internet. The NSA conducts this surveillance by tapping directly into the Internet backbone inside the United States – the network of high-capacity cables and switches that carry vast numbers of Americans' communications with each other and with the rest of the world. Once the NSA copies the communications, it searches the contents of almost all international text-based communications – and many domestic ones as well – for search terms relating to its "targets."

In short, the NSA has cast a massive dragnet over Americans' international communications.

Inside the United States, upstream surveillance is conducted under a controversial spying law called the FISA Amendments Act, which allows the NSA to target the communications of foreigners abroad and to intercept Americans' communications with those foreign targets. The main problem with the law is that it doesn't limit which foreigners can be targeted. The NSA's targets may include journalists, academics, government officials, tech workers, scientists, and other innocent people who are not connected even remotely with terrorism or suspected of any wrongdoing. The agency sweeps up Americans' communications with all of those targets.

And, as our lawsuit explains, the NSA is exceeding even the authority granted by the FISA Amendments Act. Rather than limit itself to monitoring Americans' communications with the foreign targets, the NSA is spying on everyone, trying to find out who might be talking or reading about those targets.

As a result, countless innocent people will be caught up in the NSA's massive net. For instance, a high school student in the U.S. working on a term paper might visit a foreign website to read a news story or download research materials. If those documents happen to contain an email address targeted by the NSA – like this news report does – chances are the communications will be intercepted and stored for further scrutiny. The same would be true if an overseas friend, colleague, or contact sent the student a copy of that news story in an email message.

As former NSA Director Michael Hayden recently put it, "[L]et me be really clear. NSA doesn't just listen to bad people. NSA listens to interesting people. People who are communicating information."

That doesn't sound like much of a limitation on the NSA's spying – and it's not. Like many Americans, the plaintiffs in our lawsuit communicate with scores of people overseas who the NSA likely finds "interesting." For instance, researchers at Human Rights Watch depend on foreign journalists, lawyers, political dissidents, and witnesses to human rights abuses for information crucial to their advocacy and reporting back home. Wikimedia communicates with millions of people abroad, many of whom read or contribute to Wikipedia, one of the largest repositories of human knowledge on earth. We know, thanks to Edward Snowden, that the NSA is interested in what some of those users are reading.

The fact that upstream surveillance is supposedly focused on international communications is hardly a saving grace. Americans spend more and more of their lives communicating over the Internet – and more and more of those communications are global in nature, whether we realize it or not. An email from a woman in Philadelphia to her mother in Phoenix might be routed through Canada without either one knowing it. Similarly, companies like Microsoft and Google often store backup copies of their U.S. customers' emails on servers overseas, again with hardly anyone the wiser. The NSA is peeking inside virtually all of these.

Our plaintiffs have had to go out of their way to take measures, sometimes at a high cost, to protect their communications from their own government. Despite these precautions, the chilling effect is palpable. NSA surveillance makes it harder for the plaintiffs to gather information from sources who believe that by sharing information over the Internet, they are also sharing it with the U.S. government and the intelligence agencies it partners with. The work of human rights and free-knowledge organizations is profoundly undermined by this unconstitutional surveillance, and we're all worse off.

Upstream surveillance flips the Constitution on its head. It allows the government to search everything first and ask questions later, making us all less free in the process. Our suit aims to stop this kind of surveillance. Please join our effort to reform the NSA.

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Jack Kessler

Kudos to the ACLU on the Wikimedia NSA suit!

The important balance between security & liberty, currently out-of-balance badly... Congratulations Wikimedia for having the bravery to lead, here. "A nation giving up its liberty for its security will have neither liberty nor security."

Let's see what Hillary & Elizabeth think about this one -- we already know what the GOP thinks... altho the Grassroots there may surprise the Leadership -- Free Speech is the fuel of our democracy, the goose that provides all the golden eggs, most of us Outside The


This is the most poorly written article I've ever read. The very first sentence is "Every time you email someone overseas..." Yeah, cause everyone does that all the time, right? And then it says they can hold e-mail for as long as three years... OH MY! Three years! The point is they can hold onto anything as long as they want if they say they don't like something about it. Isn't this supposed to persuade people to your way of thinking? Instead you talk about how they only do it occasionally and for a limited time. You have to make it look as bad as it could possibly be to everyone and anything that makes it look better you just don't talk about, especially in the first paragraph. Geeze, learn to propagandize!

You know I've actually noticed this shoddy writing on other political sites (Ron Paul's specifically), always appearing to support one side but presenting information that weakens their stance. It's almost like some political sites are run by tamperers, meddlers, tinkerers, pranksters, hackers, or practical jokers... Gg


The Two Hands

Also visible in the Animal kingdom, the brutal Strength is no better or worse than the deadly Deception.

Two are the Hands to cross and shape our World
to mold It like a vase of clay and put their own seal
the scepter of command, illusion of reward
to drive at will one Destiny with no steering wheel.

In the last World war, the Hand of Strength and Hand of Deception have crossed once again.
Strength personified by the Axis and Deception by the Allies.
Gestapo versus CIA.
One long scar still bleeds over this Planet.
With Strength defeated, the winners of the War have extended their cunning Hand, robbed the whole World and transformed each town in a place where Deception is the only reality.
Two new blocks were soon formed right after the War.
UK and USA celebrated Capitalism while Russia instead was infatuated with Communism.
The Two Hands had only changed gloves.

In the Animal World in which we live, those Two Hands belong today to the CIA which is a virtual State independent from any government and precursor of a New World Order.
There should be no doubt in regard to whom are masters of Strength and Deception and who is the Beast at the top of this Animal kingdom.
Although a New World Order will also be the natural end game only for a Humankind that will continue on the same footsteps and go on to believe at the same values.
The alternative is a drastic change and repudiation of the single Animal Law to turn the page in the book of Destiny.


I bet the nsa has a team of millions of people dedicated to reading your emails to auntie Janice about how bingo went the other day.


This is totally insane, but it seems like the government might have the upper hand legally. If they trap foreign-bound emails once they leave the United States network, how will the legal challenge work? As far as I know, the government basically has the power to spy on anyone overseas.

You definitely need the two-tiered approach. You need to figure out how it can be challenged legally, but you also need to get technology people to identify good solutions that can be used for to facilitate private communication. This is not necessarily easy because every other month we're finding suspicious backdoors in all our favorite software, and who knows how they got there or how many more there are. You need some serious technology people. The irony is that any serious terrorist organization will definitely be employing these tactics. Or MUCH more likely, they will be communicating in ways the NSA can't even track - at least not with this upstream/dragnet technology.


So, going by this story, am I to understand that the NSA has the largest collection of child pornography on the planet?

And nobody is looking into that?

Excuse me?


The NSA should target their searches bases on probable cause as authorized by a judge in decisions that are transparent and informed by public representation.

What the NSA is doing is placing itself in the position of an all knowing God, that by knowing everyone's thoughts and intentions they can shepherd the Nation in the greatest safety. However the NSA is composed of human beings who are well known for their tendency to seek personal enrichment at the expense of others. That is why no government or agency can be allowed to accumulate excessive power. Because it is only a matter of time until it is misused.


This is just insane. Why do these people search your email when it could be as innocent as a funny cat video that you want your best friend to see? I for one, will not put up with it any longer.

Banana Splilt

I am split on this. Everyone breathes a big sigh of relief when a terrorist attack is thwarted by law enforcement, where it could have resulted in the deaths of many innocent lives, and they don't say how they found out about it "before" it happened. But can anyone honestly say that they are not extremely happy that someone came across it ? Are they a hero or do we call them a threat to our privacy , which I guess they are technically? They aren't psychic, so they have to actually read around to learn this since people can appear so innocent and even hold a really good job, but at the same time, be plotting harmful are they supposed to know for sure who to look in on? But I do get where this kind of authority is also in the hands of some who abuse it for their own personal purpose in stalking anyone they deem a threat to whatever their personal goals may be, where they know that by using an excuse that they believe a person to be a terrorist when they very well know better, they can then use their position to get permission to stalk the person in order to find out where they go, who they know, where they bank, who they communicate with .....everything and anything they want to know in order to gang stalk and intimidate the person or activist into keeping quiet. So someone needs to arrange the laws in a way that national surveillance would have some kind of oversight to avoid it being used for other than intended.

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