Over a four year period, the US National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted the online accounts of various foreigners in a highly targeted investigation. Except it wasn’t that targeted at all and an investigation by the Washington Post has suggested that for every one legitimate target the data of 9 innocent individuals was swept up at the same time. These people were both Americans and non-Americans, there was little specific details that could tie these people together, it looks like just random people who got swept up in the investigation.

The surveillance files created consisted of some fairly detailed information, there were names, email addresses and full transcripts of messages for example. The investigation was a success including information about double agents, secret nuclear projects and the identities of some foreign hackers who had broken into US computer networks (although that could mean anything!). However the 90% who were not targeted had no protection against this federal snooping unless they had encrypted their communication using some VPN software.

It could be said that the results justified the intrusions into innocent internet user’s privacy. The tracking is said to have resulted into the capture of a Pakistan bomb maker in 2011,who is suspected to be involved in the Bali 2002 bombing. There were other examples apparently how the report was asked to withold those on the request of the CIA as they may compromise ongoing investigations.

So how many people were affected who were not supposed to be targeted were involved? Well the number is estimated by the Washington Post at approximately 10,000 individuals all who had their data catalogued and recorded. These were real people with real stories and the information read included ‘stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental health issues, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes.’

In addition to this, more than 5000 personal photos and pictures were collected. These are of course what we know about, remember this information was only revealed because Edward Snowden provided the Washington Post with the details. This is likely only one of many thousands of investigations taking place across the planet by the NSA and a variety of other National Security Agencies in other countries.

It’s worth thinking about doing something to protect your privacy unless you fancy your personal online details appearing in agency catalogues across the internet. The cost of a simple high speed VPN won’t make you 100% safe from the security agencies, but will stop your data being harvested and appearing there by mistake. These 10,000 people included in the leaked document are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, the wide spread network tapping is designed to harvest the data from millions of transactions so it’s highly likely the real figure is many times higher.