Despite a general agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom that their citizens won't be surveilled by each other's intelligence agencies, documents leaked by Edward Snowden indicate that, since 2007, the National Security Agency has been explicitly collecting and analyzing information on British citizens, with that country's permission. Raising the question: Could British intelligence be surveilling us — with the NSA's permission?
The new report in The Guardian outlines what's known about the agreement between the countries, two of the five nations that comprise the "Five Eyes" group (the other three being New Zealand, Australia, and Canada). It appears that the collection is largely metadata — email addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses — collected incidentally, meaning without both people involved in the communication being specific targets of the agency. That data is then apparently used in the NSA's system for building out relationship networks.
The NSA has been using the U.K. data to conduct so-called "pattern of life" or "contact-chaining" analyses, under which the agency can look up to three "hops" away from a target of interest – examining the communications of a friend of a friend of a friend.
The Guardian also notes that this — though undertaken with the U.K.'s consent — runs contrary to the understanding between Five Eyes countries.
The memo states that the Five-Eyes agreement "has evolved to include a common understanding that both governments will not target each other's citizens/persons".
But the next sentence – classified as not to be shared with foreign partners – states that governments "reserved the right" to conduct intelligence operations against each other's citizens "when it is in the best interests of each nation".
The United States made unilateral contingency plans to surveil even its allies. "The document does not reveal whether such operations had been authorized in the past," the paper continues, "nor whether the NSA believes its Five-Eyes partners conduct operations against U.S. citizens."