I have gone through this rather lengthy and disturbing Washington Post article and have tried to capture the main ideas. I am amazed that the Washington Post, hardly considered to be a conservative newspaper, would criticize Obama and his administration so openly.
Even though Obama said in June 2013 that NSA’s email collecting program does not apply to U.S. citizens, the investigative journalists who wrote this article have used released documents that prove otherwise.
Bottom line: Yes, data, including e-mail address books from Americans, is being widely collected by the NSA.
According to this article, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have vast authority over NSA and its collection of address books, buddy lists, and instant messaging accounts from Americans (as well as foreigners).
The data from Americans is collected in large volumes in part because they live and work overseas but also because data crosses international boundaries even when its American owners stay at home. Large technology companies, including Google and Facebook, maintain data centers around the world.
In one day last year, the NSA collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail, and 22,881 from unspecified other providers.
Address books contain names and e-mail addresses but also telephone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information. The NSA can take all of this information and map a person’s life, as told by personal, professional, political, and religious connections.
NSA collects more than twice as many address books from Yahoo than the other big services combined probably because Yahoo has left its connections to users unencrypted. In January Yahoo is going to begin encrypting them. Google started encrypting in 2010 to thwart NSA’s large-scale collection efforts.
Because the NSA captures contact lists “on the fly” as they cross major Internet switches, rather than “at rest” on computer servers, the NSA has no need to notify the U.S. companies that host the information or to ask for help from them.
The NSA has not been authorized by Congress or the special intelligence court that oversees foreign surveillance to collect contact lists in bulk from facilities in the U. S. But in a work-around of the law, the Obama administration has merely been intercepting contact lists from access points outside the United States.
NSA analysts, may not search or distribute information from the contacts database unless they can “make the case that something in there is a valid foreign intelligence target in and of itself.”
However, NSA only has to make its case basically to itself or to the Executive Branch; and with few exceptions, intelligence operations overseas fall solely within Obama’s legal purview.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has less information and less oversight of what the President does under Executive Order 12333; and on July 6, 2012, Obama through additional Executive Orders gave himself more control over the Internet.