NSA's Spy Rules Create Vast Number of U.S. Eavesdropping Targets

PHOTO: This Sept. 19, 2007 file photo shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md.

America's spies are playing a version of the old parlor game Six Degrees of Separation, using our very social networks -- from the people you call on the phone, to your friends on Facebook -- to create a vast database, capable of tracking millions of conversations the government hopes will lead to potential terrorists.

By its own admission, the National Security Agency is gathering data on millions of Americans, many of whom would never suspect their conversations or relationships have anything to do with a terror investigation.

"When you're talking to your uncle in Israel about politics, or economics with a friend in Russia, the NSA is entitled to listen in. The agency is authorized to scan large portions of traffic going in and out of the country without a warrant," said Trevor Timm, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But beyond that initial conversation, the NSA is currently legally entitled to gather information not just on those participants, but anyone those participants talk to, and anyone those people talk to after that.

This summer, when news of the NSA's vast electronic data mining operation was exposed by former contractor Edward Snowden, NSA deputy director John Inglis told Congress that the agency can perform "a second or third hop query," sucking up data from telephone and internet uses.

Those hops refer to degrees of separation between associates. Think of your friends on Facebook, and all of their friends, and all of their friends. The NSA can legally monitor all of them.

An analysis by the Telegraph newspaper found that the average person has 190 Facebook connections, or first degree friends. Two hops, or friends of friends, yields of pool of 31,046 people whom the NSA is allowed to spy on. Three hops, or friends of friends of friends, creates a pool of more than 5 million people, from whom the NSA is authorized to collect data.

The agency, however, isn't just tracking communications by terrorists but by virtually everyone. One call overseas can lead the NSA to listen in on calls by those participants' friends and their friends of friends.

"The NSA is collecting data on every single American, regardless of their connections or suspicions about terror. The NSA database includes information on every single call made in the U.S., who made it and how long it lasted," Timm said.

When telephone calls and emails are sent domestically, the rules by which the NSA can actively listen in are stricter than when someone in the U.S. speaks with someone in a foreign country.

"We are all at risk for having most of our personal communication intercepted," said Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The NSA believes anyone who has had direct contact with someone overseas is fair game and their conversations can be listened to."

When communicating with someone overseas, the NSA doesn't need a warrant to listen in. The conversation triggering NSA interest "doesn't even have to involve terror all," said Timm.

But beyond that initial conversation, the NSA is currently legally entitled to gather information not just on those participants, but anyone those participants talk to, and anyone those people talk to after that.

"We're all at risk for having our most personal communications listened to," said EPIC's Stepanovich. "The only way to protect yourself? Never talk to anyone."

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