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The Government Isn’t Reading as Much of Your Online Data as You Thought

February 17, 2016, 5:57 PM UTC
Symbol Photo Computer Hard Drive With NSA Logo.
GERMANY, BONN - DECEMBER 12: Symbol photo of a computer hard drive with the logo of the National Security Agency (NSA), on December 12, 2014 in Bonn, Germany. (Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images)
Ulrich Baumgarten—Getty Images

Good news: It turns out the government probably isn’t reading quite as many of your e-mails as you might have thought.

That’s according to a recently declassified report from the National Security Agency that the New York Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. According to the Times, that 2015 document shows the NSA only asks Internet operators to turn over customers’ e-mails that are “to, from or about the N.S.A.’s foreign targets.”

In other words, the report suggests that Internet surveillance the NSA carries out under the 2008 FISA Amendments Act does not necessarily cover every piece of online data Internet providers have access to—but, rather, those companies provide the NSA with select e-mails deemed relevant to national security interests.

While some measures have been taken recently to better protect users’ online privacy, the government’s Internet surveillance practices remain a controversial issue among privacy advocates. Companies such as AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) have been reported to have helped the NSA conduct Internet surveillance of international and foreign-to-foreign online communications that passed through the companies’ U.S. hubs.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley executives such as Google (GOOG) chairman Eric Schmidt have pushed for stronger restrictions on the government’s Internet surveillance out of concern that a lack of online privacy could damage the growth of Internet and related companies.