The Obama administration has expanded the National Security Agency's authority to hunt for foreign threats coursing through American Internet pipes by allowing the agency to collect intelligence on cyberattacks, the New York Times and ProPublica reported Thursday, citing documents provided by Edward Snowden.
The reports noted that the surveillance of U.S. internet traffic, which began in 2012, has been occurring without individual warrants envisioned under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 1978 law that predated the modern Internet. The warrantless surveillance was legalized in 2008.
Brian Hale, the spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said it was "not surprising that the U.S. government gathers intelligence on foreign powers that attempt to penetrate U.S. networks and steal the private information of U.S. citizens and companies."
Under the PRISM program, the NSA, pursuant to secret court orders, collects intelligence about foreign threats through U.S. Internet companies. The agency also collects information by tapping Internet traffic at home and abroad. Snowden, a former agency contractor now living in Russia to avoid criminal charges, revealed PRISM in 2013.
In mid-2012, Justice Department lawyers wrote two secret memos authorizing NSA to begin collecting intelligence on U.S. Internet cables for data linked to cyber attacks and hacking originating abroad -- including traffic that flows to suspicious Internet addresses or contains malware, the news reports said.
At least one NSA lawyer was worried that a lot of information about innocent Americans would be incidentally collected, the reports said. He proposed storing the cyber data in a way that analysts working on unrelated issues could not query it, a 2010 training document showed.
But it's not clear whether that ever happened.
The NSA's collection of foreign intelligence on American Internet infrastructure was not addressed in the USA Freedom Act, the law enacted this week that will end the agency's collection of American calling records.