The National Security Agency program was one of the most disputed forms of surveillance.
WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency (NSA) said Friday that it had halted one of the most disputed practices of its warrantless-surveillance program, ending a once-secret form of wiretapping that dates to the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 expansion of national-security powers.
The agency is no longer collecting Americans’ emails and texts exchanged with people overseas that simply mention identifying terms — like email addresses — for foreigners the agency is spying on, but are neither to nor from those targets.
The decision is a major development in U.S. surveillance policy. Privacy advocates have argued the practice skirted or overstepped the Fourth Amendment.
The change is unrelated to the surveillance imbroglio over the investigations into Russia and the Trump campaign, according to officials familiar with the matter. Rather, it stemmed from a discovery that NSA analysts had violated rules imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court barring any searching for Americans’ information in certain messages captured through such wiretapping.
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Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who sits on the Intelligence Committee and has long been an outspoken critic of what he saw as NSA overreach, hailed the decision and said he would offer legislation to codify the new limit in federal law.
“This change ends a practice that allowed Americans’ communications to be collected without a warrant merely for mentioning a foreign target,” Wyden said.
The government has previously argued the practice was important for fighting terrorism, saying it could uncover new suspects.
The legal issue behind the NSA’s decision is rooted in the complicated technical steps the agency takes to conduct surveillance.
Under one aspect of the warrantless-surveillance program, which Congress legalized with the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon give the NSA copies of internet messages that cross the international border and contain a search term that identifies foreigners overseas the government has targeted for surveillance, such as email addresses. The agency calls this “upstream” collection.
Until 2013, it was not publicly known that the equipment installed on network switches was systematically sifting all cross-border internet traffic and sending to the NSA messages containing such a targeted email address anywhere — not just emails to or from targets, but also between other people who talk about them.
The Times first reported the existence of this practice, “about” surveillance, amid the fallout from the leaks by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Going forward, the agency will receive and store only intercepted messages that were directly sent to or from a target.
On Friday, Snowden wrote on Twitter that “the truth changed everything.”
In its statement, the NSA said its failures to comply with the intelligence court rules, which it characterized as “inadvertent,” prompted it to report the problems to the court.