NSA surveillance ‘hops’ take a step back

WASHINGTON — Since the embarrassing and damaging theft of documents from the National Security Agency by former contractor Edward Snowden, the U.S. intelligence community has sought to harden its information security systems.

At the same time, the agency is attempting to soften its stance on the collection of data on Americans in the U.S.

Snowden’s leaks triggered a national debate that raised concerns about the possibility that large numbers of American citizens could be inadvertently caught up in terror investigations.

At the heart of that debate was the process of establishing communication chains by using an electronic process called a “hop.”

“Hops are related to the ability of the intelligence community to look at communications of suspected terrorists with other individuals,” said deputy White House Press Secretary Shawn Turner.

Previously, NSA was permitted to develop contact chains by starting with a suspect and, using telephone metadata records, determine with whom that individual communicated. That was considered one hop. NSA was allowed to take three hops –- which amounted to a pyramid-like communications sequence.

“If the person of interest talks to 10 people and we get those 10 numbers, that’s the first hop. If each of those 10 people talks to 10 other people and we get those 100 numbers, that’s the second hop and so on,” said Turner.

Under the old rules, a third hop could result in hundreds, if not thousands, of phone and contact information for people, most of whom officials believe likely would not know, much less communicate with, the suspect.

On Tuesday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released documents detailing significant reforms aimed at addressing weighty privacy concerns raised after the Snowden theft.

Under new rules released by the ODNI, NSA will be limited to two hops. According to an explanation in the documents, “the limitation to two hops reduces the number of potential results from each query.”

The full report details, among other things, the intelligence community’s progress in implementing Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 28. The order addresses reforms regarding the collection of bulk telephone metadata records under Section 215 of the US PATRIOT Act, the collection of intelligence under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the use of national security letters.

Assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco said in a statement, “Our signals intelligence activities must take into account that all persons have legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information.”

But with sophisticated terror threats on the horizon, Monaco acknowledged safety and security have to be balanced against privacy.

“We must ensure that our intelligence community has the resources and authorities necessary for the United States to advance its national security and foreign policy interests and to protect its citizens and the citizens of its allies and partners from harm,” said Monaco.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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