WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency has halted one of the most disputed practices of its warrantless wiretapping program: collecting Americans’ emails and texts to and from people overseas that mention foreigners targeted for surveillance, according to officials familiar with the matter.
National security officials have argued that such surveillance is lawful and helpful in identifying people who might have links to terrorism, espionage or otherwise are targeted for intelligence-gathering. The fact that the sender of such a message would know an email address or phone number associated with a surveillance target is grounds for suspicion, these officials argued.
The decision is a major development in American surveillance policy. It brings to an end a once-secret form of wiretapping that privacy advocates have argued overstepped the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches — even though the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court upheld it as lawful — because the government was intercepting communications based on what they say, rather than who sent or received them.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has long been a critic of N.S.A. surveillance, said that he would introduce legislation codifying the new limit. The law that authorizes the program, the FISA Amendments Act, is up for renewal at the end of 2017.
“This change ends a practice that allowed Americans’ communications to be collected without a warrant merely for mentioning a foreign target,” Mr. Wyden said. “For years I’ve repeatedly raised concerns that this amounted to an end-run around the Fourth Amendment. This transparency should be commended.”