back to article NSA coughs to 1000s of unlawful acts of snooping on US soil since 2008

The NSA violated privacy laws thousands of times in the last five years by spying on US citizens, an internal audit by the super-snoopers has disclosed. The Washington Post reports that the intelligence agency also overstepped its legal remit since Congress gave it broad powers in 2008. Most of the violations involved …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fetch my paintbox ...

    ... and colour me surprised.

    Cue platitudes and excuses from Keith Alexander in 5 ... 4 ... 3 ...

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Fetch my paintbox ...

      Just heard on the radio they're going to make a statement today.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Fetch my paintbox ...

        "Just heard on the radio they're going to make a statement today."

        "We officially acknowledge that, unofficially, a few individuals working for numerous United States intelligence agencies may have overstepped their legal authority.

        However, we can not officially acknowledge the unofficial activities due to 'national security' issues.

        Therefore, we believe that the official investigation will reach a conclusion, one reached via closed-door negotiations to assure the America public of being secure against the threats against us. The negotiations and settlement will be officially classified, due to the sensitive nature of the NSA policies under investigation, but, rest assured, the interest of the American people will be taken into account and the proper precautions will be taken in the future."

        Does that doublespeak sound about right?

    2. James Micallef Silver badge

      Re: Fetch my paintbox ...

      Quelle surprise!

      In other news, the new pope is also catholic, just like the old one.

      And park rangers have observed repeated patterns of arboreal ursine defecation

      1. Jordan 1

        Re: Fetch my paintbox ...

        I didn't know bears shit from trees.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Fetch my paintbox ...

          "I didn't know bears shit from trees".

          He was probably thinking of the notorious pigeon bears of East Dakota.

  2. Don Jefe

    Error Error Error

    The really scary part of this is that these violations are at the consolidation and analysis center so they only reflect errors that escaped redaction at the collection centers, where the majority of the work gets done.

    So what we're looking at here is a system that is so broken the presence of ~2500 constitutionally illegal procedures slip through the curtains to be reported, the rest are squashed hidden suppressed corrected before they get reported to HQ.

    1. andreas koch
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Error Error Error

      > . . .

      Most of the violations involved unauthorised surveillance of Americans and foreigners in the US. Problems arose thanks to clumsy operator mistakes, insufficient or inaccurate research, failures to follow the correct procedures and even typos.

      . . . <


      And no one mentioned Terry Gilliam's Brazil yet.

    2. tom dial Silver badge

      Re: Error Error Error

      That would be 2776 errors out of how many queries? For an overall error rate of what? The Post inconveniently does not mention that, so the number is effectively meaningless. That number is undesirable, to be sure, but it certainly be more meaningful if put in a suitable context.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Error Error Error

        If you repeatedly fire a machine gun at random in a highly populated area, sooner or later someone will be killed. There is no need to put anything in "a suitable context". A criminal act is a criminal act, and thousands of criminal acts are A VERY BAD THING, no matter what "error rate" they are said to represent. If someone is doing something that is supposedly legal, but every now and then makes a mistake that results in an illegal act, that person has (broadly speaking) three main options:

        1. Stop making ANY errors.

        2. Stop the activity.

        3. Go to prison.

        By the way, how many people have been sent to prison for these "thousands of illegal acts"?

  3. h3

    There is probably another court that gives them permission to ignore anything that this one tells them do that they don't want to.

    If they just came out and said basically they do what they like with no oversight that would annoy me less.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      "If they just came out and said basically they do what they like with no oversight that would annoy me less".

      Yes, but it would rudely puncture the carefully-nursed illusions of "democracy", "freedom", "human rights", and "the rule of law". Which is more important - at least, to the people who matter.

  4. ukgnome

    Fetch me my Troll hat!

    This is just a smear campaign, America is land of the free.......etc

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fetch me my Troll hat!

      agreed... Land of the Free, my ass! At least the UK admits where and how they limit their citizens rights. Long live the Socialist Elite!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Fetch me my Troll hat!

        "At least the UK admits where and how they limit their citizens rights. "

        But, like the USA,, only when they'ce been found out.

        E.g. spying rubbish bins in London.

      2. FredBloggsY

        Re: Fetch me my Troll hat!

        "Land of the Free, my ass!"

        "Ass", my arse.

  5. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Jail time?

    And how many people are looking at 90years for this

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Jail time?

      Here's a hint - it's probably a nice, round number ...

      ... which is one of the many things that makes this so fucking annoying.

    2. Miek

      Re: Jail time?

      "And how many people are looking at 90years for this" -- Probably just the one ... Edward Snowden.

  6. JimmyPage

    So they admitted 2000+ cases

    presumably these are the ones they could be caught out on anyway.

    I wonder what the *real* number is ?

    1. fishman

      Re: So they admitted 2000+ cases

      [I wonder what the *real* number is ?]

      It's probably like roaches - if you see one, you've got dozens.

  7. Dr. Mouse

    One rule for one...

    '“We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official told the Post in an interview.'

    I wonder how the courts would view it if a multinational company said, "We are a human-run company operating under several legal systems in different countries, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line".

    Or a car driver said "I'm a human driver, driving on a lot of different roads with a lot of different speed limits, so at times I find myself driving too fast".

    1. Red Bren

      Re: One rule for one...

      Don't worry, the error prone, fleshy element in the equation will soon be eradicated:

      1. Eddy Ito

        Re: One rule for one...

        I think you mean the potentially ethical, "fleshy element in the equation will soon be eradicated:"

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Well, I am glad this came out.

    I'd been hoping that something cataloging the number of violations that occur within the NSA would come out. Now we at least get some smallish glimpse of the truth.

    Keep in mind that these violations only concern American citizens, residents and travelers who are within the U.S. The rest of the world is a SigInt free-fire zone as far as the NSA is concerned. I don't overly mind that, since I as an American don't have many legal protections from snooping by foreign governments--that's just the world is. But if you are one of el Reg's many, many non-American readers, you can assume that there are no legal barrier between the NSA and whatever personal or work-related data you are working with.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You what?

    "I'm a human firearms operator, firing at a lot of different targets so at times I find myself shooting people and US senators."

    That's not going to get you off a murder charge, is it?

    One week jail time per incident sounds quite reasonable, and 53 years in the slammer might concentrate the mind of the NSA's chief.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: You what?

      However; "I'm a human missile operator and sometimes hit the wrong town" - does get you off a murder charge.

      1. Adam Foxton

        Re: You what?

        missing by a town, that's understandable given the difficulties manually targetting these things. What do you expect them to do, create an Earth-spanning set of positioning satellites? Or maybe spend millions creating a way of navigating using spinning lasers?! While we're at it let's throw in bouncing radio waves too! Honestly, you people and your science fiction.

        Next you'll be saying they should be prosecuted for bombing the next-but-one country during that Kosovo conflict a few years back. This is war, son, and people die in-theatre. Or, in that case, thousands of miles outside it.

    2. Oninoshiko

      Re: You what?

      "I'm a human firearms operator, firing at a lot of different targets so at times I find myself shooting people and US senators."

      That's not going to get you off a murder charge, is it?

      That depends if you're a cop or not...

  10. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    How on Earth did they over step their remit?

    When their remit seems to be - do whatever the hell you want !

  11. Billl

    Bigger Gov

    So, you big gov Socialist types think bigger government is a good thing, huh?

    1. Red Bren
      Big Brother

      Re: Bigger Gov

      You small gov NeoCon types certainly think bigger government is a good thing, at least when it comes to the military and espionage (both international and domestic)

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: Bigger Gov

      Conservatives support growing government too. They just want it to grow in a way that puts money into their programs. Don't ever buy that bullishit about the conservative platform being for smaller government, it isn't; their platform is greater control.

      A study of their own policies prove it, it's just that the conservatives are also known for completely ignoring their own facts if it'll get them what they want.

  12. stephajn

    This should be made a movie!

    Once again, Snowden leaked documents that the NSA really wishes didn't exist. I am telling you....this is shaping up to be the best plot for a movie!

  13. Sir Runcible Spoon

    I see the Fnords

    "The audit only covers figures from the NSA's Maryland headquarters"

    I read this as "NSA's marketing headquarters"

    " so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line"

    I read this as "so we often find ourselves"

    "The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of non-compliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders"

    And I read that last 'compliance' as 'non'compliance.

    Is this what is meant by the phrase 'I see the fnords" I wonder?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I see the Fnords

      A Discordian is Prohibited from Believing What he reads.

      Including the above sentence, on pain of pain.

      -Mascoponi in situ.

    2. Don Jefe
      Black Helicopters

      Re: I see the Fnords

      Yes, I believe that's likely what they were aiming at when exposing the fnords to the uninitiated.

      It's a pity you had to tell everyone about your revelation though. I for one will miss your commentary when you're replaced with a duplicate Runcible Spoon... Runcible Spork!

  14. qwertyuiop


    logs 2,776 incidents of "unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications"

    Which particular meaning of the word "collection" is being used here?

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Meaning?

      Collection, noun: The act or process of collecting a like type group of items or other works.

      It looks like they're trying to collect the complete set.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lies to the American people.

    Lies to the courts.

    Generating documents telling people how to lie to oversight bodies and other government agencies.

    How do you know you are not being lied to Mr. Obama? Congress?

    "In God we trust."

    You are not God.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      "In God we trust."

      Only since 1953

      1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: only since 1953

        ...which, if Eisenhower is to be believed, is roughly when the rot set in.

  16. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    mea culpa

    This just means that someone will get a good bollixing, the NSA will announce "Problem solved, it won't happen again" - and America will go back to watching FOX News and Reality TV.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: mea culpa

      If they watch FOX News then they may actually see this NSA news as a top story. If they watch CNN or MSNBC then they will just be watching about Hanna Anderson and Lisa Robin Kelly. Of course, if the incompetent George Bush were President then these so called "News" orgs would be calling for his impeachment.

      The Washington Post is a left leaning newspaper, but they at least seem to have some level of integrity.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: mea culpa

      "...will get a good bollixing..."

      Are you kidding me? With this administration? This is typical Chicago style tactics. The ends justify the means. What happened to the people that brought us the IRS attacking conservative groups? They got promotions. The one guy that was "let go" was retiring this year anyway. Too many rights being ignored with this administration. Wake up!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: mea culpa

        The last lot were the same, if not worse.

        It must be difficult to be an American citizen, having to choose between two near-identical sets of power-mad or just plain mad rulers when so many are fanatical about each of them.

        1. Jason_H

          Re: mea culpa

          Erm... show me how it is different here in the UK?

          1. Richard 12 Silver badge

            Re: mea culpa

            We have the Monster Raving Loony Party!

            Sanest guys in politics.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    caused by?

    "Problems arose thanks to clumsy operator mistakes, insufficient or inaccurate research, failures to follow the correct procedures and even typos."

    They missed out 'arrogance' - "we're the NSA and you ain't worth shit"

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: caused by?

      They missed "We really didn't think this would get out".

  18. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    So "Self reporting," like shrub bought in for offshore oil rigs

    And I think we know how well that turned out.

    It seems no one has powers of investigation or over sight with the NSA.

    You are allowed to know when they broke (what little) law there is in this area when they tell you they did, and by how much.

  19. Graham Marsden

    "Most were accidental mishaps"

    Oh, well *that's* ok then.

    It's not as if they were doing it deliberately...

  20. asdf
    Thumb Up

    Keep those leaks dripping slowly. Keep this in the news for weeks. Its already changing now the NSA and even rest of the government does business. Sunshine truly is the best disinfectant in government.

  21. Someone Else Silver badge


    Is this going to part of the "conversation" about the balance of security and the rights of citizens to be secure in the persons and papers from unreasonable searches by the committee lead by notable human-rights advocate James Clapper?

    Just askin'...

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: So...

      No, this will not. This will be addressed by another commission which will not be reporting to the President, Congress or the public. You'll just have to trust they'll take care of the issue(s).

  22. Mephistro

    What we need is...

    ... a BuSab.

    Some quotes from the linked Wikipedia article:

    "...The bureaucratic machinery becomes a juggernaut, rolling over human concerns and welfare with terrible speed, jerking the universe of sentients one way, then another, threatening to destroy everything in a fit of spastic reactions."

    " ...signs of anti-sentient behaviour by corporate or government entities ..."

    Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? It seems Mr. Herbert knew what he was talking about.

    Warning: This post should be taken with a grain of salt. A very small one, but a grain of salt nevertheless. :0)

    1. asdf

      Re: What we need is...

      He truly was a prophet but at first I read Mr. Hubbard (as in L Ron) and was going to be like Tom C get out of the closet and go post somewhere else lol.

  23. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Fuck the NSA

    Fuck the NSA. Well, the people at the NSA Cryptologic Museum actually were quite nice, but other than them.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Fuck the NSA

      The people at the museum are employees which did not exhibit the deficiencies in moral fiber and antisocial tendencies of their colleagues with the security clearances who work in the back: i.e. inappropriate hires.

  24. Camilla Smythe

    Perhaps the NSA

    Can ask Mr Ertugrul for some advice as to how to handle the situation..

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    "One glaring example of unreported dragnet overreach occurred in 2008 when a programming error resulted in the interception of a large number of calls made in the Washington DC area..."

    This wouldn't have 'accidentally' happened in the leadup to the election .. Would it ?

    1. Don Jefe

      No. As a regular on the DC scene I can assure you that there is nothing worth putting under surveillance there except possibly drug buys by members of Congress and the DC City Council. But that's not scandalous or interesting because they passed laws that make it illegal to request they be screened for drug use.

      People go to DC to be seen and distribute money, all the real business takes place away from that festering ass boil of a town.

      In all seriousness, the calling code thing seems like the only slightly believable part of all this. People do make mistakes, but that's also why letting people have this much power is a really bad idea.

  26. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

    glaring example

    "buggy software confused the US telephone area code 202 with intentional calls made to Egypt (country code +20)."

    The sentence is buggy (s/intentional/international/), not so sure about the software: IIRC, whether you are in the US or not you need to dial +1202... for DC, but you would dial +20... (without 1) for Egypt. I'd suppress disbelief with more ease were it not for that pesky 1.

    I know. The bug in NSA code is most likely something like this:

    // ----- begin NSA code -----

    // more people in the rest of the world than in the US -> initialize to true

    bool log_the_call(true);


    // log_the_call = is_international_call(caller_number,callee_number);

    if (log_the_call)



    // ----- end NSA code -----

    Just a simple, innocent human error...

  27. dan1980

    Exposes their priorities pretty clearly

    What this shows most strongly is that the NSA and the associated apparatus around this (and similar) programs just does not value the privacy and civil liberties of their fellow human beings very highly at all.

    You might say that of course they don't care for privacy but within the scope of spying, it is still possible to make such concerns a high priority.

    There is a shell of just such a concept in that that is how the official mouthpieces talk about it but the reality seems to be that there is just no responsibility because they always assumed they would just continue on without any 'accidents' ever seeing the light of day. In other words, they don’t care about doing something ‘wrong’, only about being caught.

    That's the really disturbing part about this. It's not the spying per se - that happens and I think there is a certain amount of that we all have to accept, reluctantly. No, the more disturbing part is the way these people view the public.

    This is the core problem with almost all information gathering, whether it be massive government-sponsored surveillance, electronic health records, or even simple customer data. The ends are viewed as FAR more important than the means and that is unacceptable when dealing with people's personal information.

    Collection of personal information should be seen like borrowing someone's car. Sure, you borrowed it to benefit yourself and so will use it to drive yourself off wherever you need to go. BUT, your primary concern should be making sure you keep the car in good condition because it's not yours and the owner trusted you to take care of it.

    In the analogy, say you're running late and have the option of taking a shortcut down an unsealed road or the congested freeway. The correct choice is the sealed freeway because although the unsealed road would be faster and more convenient, you might get scratches or a chip in the window, upset the suspension or simply wear the tires more than necessary.

    That's the way privacy and personal liberty should be treated - like an expensive, easily-damaged, and costly to repair possession.

    Unfortunately, all the NSA (et al) care about is their surveillance and it feels like that has become an end in itself, with all other considerations secondary.

    In short, what this shows is that the NSA and, by extension, the government, view citizens' privacy and personal liberty as unimportant. There can be no defence - if they considered these concerns important then they would have such safeguards and oversight as to make these breaches and 'accidents' almost non-existent.

    1. Vic

      Re: Exposes their priorities pretty clearly

      > Collection of personal information should be seen like borrowing someone's car.

      Indeed. You're supopsed to ask first, and abide by the answer...


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