That word does not mean what you think it means

What the NSA revelations have shown is the extent of the national security state that we live in. In order to achieve this stealthily, the government has developed the technique of having secret meanings for ordinary words, so that they can claim legality and transparency and due process when in reality they have none of those things.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes how the word ‘target’ has been abused so that the government can claim that it is not eavesdropping on Americans’ communications since they are not the ‘targets’ of the searches.

The government has previously tried to reassure the public about its use of FISA Amendments Act Section 702 surveillance practices, emphasizing that, under Section 702, the government may not “intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.” Indeed, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Senator Feinstein, in a letter to constituents who wrote to her expressing concern about the NSA’s spying program, said this: “[T]he government cannot listen to an American’s telephone calls or read their emails without a court warrant issued upon a showing of probable cause.”

We’ve written before about the word games the government plays in describing its surveillance practices: “acquire,” “collect,” and “content” are all old government favorites. The New York Times report proves Feinstein statement is false, and it’s clear it’s time to add “target” to the list of word games as well.

First, at least this much is clear: a “target” under the FAA must be (a) a non-US person and (b) not physically located within the United States. A “person,” for purposes of the FAA, includes individuals as well as “any group, entity, association, corporation, or foreign power.” Under the FAA, the government can thus “target” a single individual (e.g., Vladimir Putin), a small group of people (e.g., Pussy Riot), or a formal corporation or entity (e.g., Gazprom).

So, when the NSA decides to “target” someone (or something), it turns its specific surveillance vacuum at them. The NSA then believes it can intercept and analyze all electronic communications of the target (telephone conversations, email conversations, chat, web browsing, etc) so long as the “target” is overseas and remains overseas. As others have noted, this includes conversations the “target” has with Americans, which would then be “incidentally” collected. Keep in mind this does not require a warrant or even the approval of a court, which is only one way Senator Feinstein’s reassurance was demonstrably false. But there’s still more.

Once a target is established, the NSA believes it can expand the sweep of its interception far more broadly than the communications of the particular, identified target.

In plain English: the NSA believes it not only can (1) intercept the communications of the target, but also (2) intercept communications about a target, even if the target isn’t a party to the communication. The most likely way to assess if a communication is “about” a target is to conduct a content analysis of communications, probably based on specific search terms or selectors.

And that, folks, is what we call a content dragnet.

No wonder Lavabit and Silent Mail decided to close shop. They were likely being asked to provide the government with backdoor access to this kind of content, either by providing the encryption keys or the users’ passwords.


  1. Paul Neubauer says

    Actually, it sounds like they are using the word pretty much like I read it all along. They are not “targeting” me, for example. They’re just sweeping up everything and my data comes along into their net. It’s kind of like the difference between a rifle, where a victim is targeted, vs. a hand grenade that is just lobbed in a general direction and, althought the victims can be just as dead, they were not “targeted”.

    This is not to say that I expect most people to interpret the word that way or that the NSA and the President did not intend to mislead, but I think the the word “target” was selected just so they could “truthfully” say that “Americans are not being targeted.”


  2. says

    The discussion of “targeting” is a deliberate attempt to deflect the discussion into one of intent. Targeting is intentional. They’re trying to establish a legalistic doctrine of unintentional search and seizure, in which it’s OK if a computer records everything because computers don’t have intent and are mere robots. The endgame there is to record everything so that when they do target you, they can retroactively strip-mine your actions going back years. That, by the way, is the current situation. The question is will they continue to get away with it? (signs point to yes) and whether it will get worse. I don’t think better is an option that our masters will offer us.

  3. Chiroptera says

    hey, then they could also redefine “ex-post facto law” so that you can be charged with violating a new law if they discover you broke it after it was passed.

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