The U.S. National Security Agency will no longer sift through emails, texts and other internet communications that mention targets of surveillance.
The change, which the NSA announced on Friday, stops a controversial tactic that critics said violated U.S. citizens’ privacy rights.
The practice involved flagging communications where a foreign surveillance target was mentioned, even if that target wasn’t involved in the conversation. Friday’s announcement means the NSA will stop collecting this data.
“Instead, this surveillance will now be limited to only those communications that are directly ‘to’ or ‘from’ a foreign intelligence target,” the NSA said in a statement.
As part of that change, the NSA will delete most of the internet communications that were collected using this surveillance tactic.
The agency said it decided to stop some of the activities because of technological constraints, U.S. citizens’ privacy interests, and difficulties with implementation.
The NSA said it made the change after reporting several incidents in which it inadvertently collected citizens’ communications while using this tactic. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the agency’s spying powers, has issued an order approving the agency’s narrower approach to data collection, the NSA said.
Privacy advocates applauded the move.
“This change ends a practice that could result in Americans’ communications being collected without a warrant merely for mentioning a foreign target,” said U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon in a statement.
He plans to introduce legislation banning this kind of data collection.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden tweeted: “This is likely the most substantive of the post-2013 NSA reforms, if the principle is applied to all other programs.”
The NSA change specifically involves its upstream surveillance collection, and not the agency’s PRISM program, which allegedly spies on U.S. citizens.