Broadly speaking, three types of NSA surveillance programs were exposed by the documents released by Edward Snowden. And while the media tends to lump them together, understanding their differences is critical to understanding how to divide up the NSA’s missions.
The first is targeted surveillance.
This is best illustrated by the work of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group, including its catalog of hardware and software “implants” designed to be surreptitiously installed onto the enemy’s computers. This sort of thing represents the best of the NSA and is exactly what we want it to do. That the United States has these capabilities, as scary as they might be, is cause for gratification.
The second is bulk surveillance, the NSA’s collection of everything it can obtain on every communications channel to which it can get access. This includes things such as the NSA’s bulk collection of call records, location data, e-mail messages and text messages.
This is where the NSA overreaches: collecting data on innocent Americans either incidentally or deliberately, and data on foreign citizens indiscriminately. It doesn’t make us any safer, and it is liable to be abused. Even the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, acknowledged that the collection and storage of data was kept a secret for too long.