Why are government agencies collecting your data through email?

November 01, 2017

We’ve all heard warnings that what we write in our emails may not truly be private, no matter how many precautions we take. Using a private email service can certainly add an important barrier for hackers and identity thieves, but what about our own federal government?

Information about the government’s mass-data collection has become more readily available in recent years, and has painted a picture that some Americans have found troublesome. For many years, the National Security Agency conducted widespread email surveillance on private citizens. Federal protocols enabled the agency to store and sift through emails to explore potential threats, with a particular focus on international communications.

In recent years, the government has imposed tighter restrictions on the NSA’s warrantless-surveillance programs. In April, the agency halted its longstanding practice of flagging emails among private citizens — those who are not under NSA surveillance — but that mention identifying information about a person or organization that is under NSA surveillance.

However, the NSA also recently adopted new protocols that enable it to share raw intelligence it collects through email surveillance with other federal agencies. Previously, shared data had to have some sensitive personal information redacted, but the new regulations allow the intercepted communications to be shared word for word.

The feds also still operate the Prism system, in which they work with large-scale providers like Yahoo and Gmail to collect American emails that originated from foreign targets of surveillance.

Even though the federal government’s surveillance program is focused on national security, having your emails land in the hands of anyone but their intended recipients is a daunting reality for many. An encrypted email service is the best line of defense against unwanted intrusions.

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