Secret deal let NSA spy on ordinary U.K. citizens

Snowden leaks affirm that Britons suspected of no wrongdoing caught in mass spy dragnets

Topics: five eyes, NSA, Edward Snowden, dragnet, Surveillance, Spying, Guardian, U.K., ,

Secret deal let NSA spy on ordinary U.K. citizens (Credit: Shutterstock)

The latest NSA leak from whistle-blower Edward Snowden, published in the Guardian, reveals for the first time that ordinary British citizens had their communications surveilled by the NSA, without any grounds for suspicion.

A secret 2007 deal struck between the U.K. and the U.S. — and detailed in an NSA memo — enabled surveillance of citizens previously deemed off-limits. The revelation further evidences how international governments — specifically the “five eyes” of the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — engage in mutual spying efforts, feeding vast surveillance dragnets with scant regard for citizens’ privacy. As the Guardian reported:



Until now, it had been generally understood that the citizens of each country were protected from surveillance by any of the others.

But the Snowden material reveals that:

• In 2007, the rules were changed to allow the NSA to analyse and retain any British citizens’ mobile phone and fax numbers, emails and IP addresses swept up by its dragnet. Previously, this data had been stripped out of NSA databases – “minimized”, in intelligence agency parlance – under rules agreed between the two countries.

• These communications were “incidentally collected” by the NSA, meaning the individuals were not the initial targets of surveillance operations and therefore were not suspected of wrongdoing.

• The NSA has been using the UK data to conduct so-called “pattern of life” or “contact-chaining” analyses, under which the agency can look up to three “hops” away from a target of interest – examining the communications of a friend of a friend of a friend. Guardian analysis suggests three hops for a typical Facebook user could pull the data of more than 5 million people into the dragnet.

• A separate draft memo, marked top-secret and dated from 2005, reveals a proposed NSA procedure for spying on the citizens of the UK and other Five-Eyes nations, even where the partner government has explicitly denied the US permission to do so. The memo makes clear that partner countries must not be informed about this surveillance, or even the procedure itself.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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