A little present from Big Brother

If you want to release something no one will pay attention to, what time's better than Christmas Eve? At least, that appeared to be the National Security Agency's thinking. Last night, the NSA released reports detailing all the times they've illegally spied on American citizens. Ho ho ho!

THE REDACTIONS MAKE IT HARD TO JUDGE HOW OFTEN PRIVACY VIOLATIONS HAPPENThe heavily redacted documents were released in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act. Many of these privacy violations have been previously reported on, but these documents show new specifics. A series of annual and quarterly reports from 2001 through the second quarter of 2013 are now available for perusal, and they cover some of the NSA's greatest hits: stalking potential romantic partners, a practice apparently so common it's been nicknamed LOVEINT; erroneously targeting US citizens for spying; database queries that returned queries on US citizens who weren't targeted; storage of data on servers "not authorized" to hold it; and access by people without security clearance to — well, to something; the specifics were redacted.

In fact, the frequent redactions make it hard to judge how often these privacy violations are happening, though previous reports suggest they occur thousands of times a year. But don't worry, the NSA says. "The problems uncovered were routine," according to NSA/CSS Office of the Inspector General report in the documents representing the first quarter of 2013.

THE REPORTS DO NOT EXACTLY FILL A CITIZEN WITH CONFIDENCEBetween agents forwarding emails to "unauthorized recipients" with the identities of US citizens, the release of identities to "unauthorized chatrooms," and the release of classified intelligence to someone not authorized to see it, the reports do not exactly fill a citizen — referred to as an USP, or "US person" in the reports — with confidence.

The errors are bad enough, but agents have deliberately overstepped their legal boundswhile spying on Americans. Congress has considered restrictions on the agency's authority, but hasn't acted to do anything about illegal spying on its citizens. The US Senate voted down the USA Freedom Act in November; the bill would have ended the controversial phone record metadata collection by the NSA, though it didn't roll back any of the NSA's broad surveillance powers.