The U.S. government has expanded the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance of American citizens international online traffic in the hunt for hackers.

The news was leaked through documents obtained by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who is now a fugitive living in Russia. The New York Times and ProPublica then broke the news that the scope of the program had broadened.

"It should come as no surprise 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," said Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "Targeting overseas individuals engaging in hostile cyberactivities on behalf of a foreign power is a lawful foreign intelligence purpose."

According to the documents, the program was approved by the Justice Department in mid-2012. However, it only allowed the agency to track hackers with signatures that may link them to foreign powers.

Of course, it really is no surprise that the agency expanded its surveillance program, with many getting used to the nature of the documents being leaked by Snowden. That does not, however, make the news less important.

The real problem here is the lack of knowledge that the public has of the program. These programs are conducted almost entirely in secret, infringing on the rights to privacy that U.S. citizens have.

The NSA, under the direction of George Bush, first started wiretapping programs after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The program became the subject of scrutiny in 2005 after the public learned about it. In 2008, Congress approved the NSA's warrantless wiretaps under the provision that they only target noncitizens that were not on American soil. In 2009, however, the NSA began building its own cybersecurity policy.

The reports come just two days after President Obama, essentially reforming the NSA's security practices, signed the U.S.A. Freedom Act and making a program that was started by the Bush administration his own. Of course, the recent reports also highlight how much the programs have expanded under the Obama administration. Going forward, however, surveillance programs will be much more limited for the NSA, and the Freedom Act actually marks the first time since 2001 that the agency is being limited in how much it can spy on U.S. citizens and others around the world.

Many, however, feel as though the new laws are not enough. Phone companies will now be storing phone records rather than the government, which is a step forward, but is not ideal.

Photo: Mike Mozart | Flickr 

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