According to National Security Agency documents released by American hero Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has boosted the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of the international internet traffic of U.S. citizens to try and find evidence of foreign computer hackers.

NSA Secretly Expanded Spying Powers

The description of this until now not publicly known warrantless surveillance program was found in documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the ex-NSA. contractor. Snowden shared copies of these documents with The New York Times and ProPublica.

More on new revelations of the NSA spying on Americans

Based on the information in the newly released Snowden documents, Justice Department legal staff wrote two secret memos allowing the agency to begin Internet surveillance without a warrant and on American soil, for data linked to cyber attacks from abroad. This specifically includes the authority to surveil Internet traffic to and from suspicious Internet addresses or those that contain malware, according to the documents.

The Justice Department new rules allowed the agency to only track addresses and “cybersignatures” that could be connected to foreign governments. However, the confidential documents released by Snowden also make it clear that the NSA sought to target hackers even when it could not find any relationship with a foreign government.

This newly discovered program is more proof of the expansion of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program, which permits law enforcement to intercept Americans’ cross-border communications if the target is a non-U.S. citizen. It has been known for some time that the NSA searches for the email addresses and phone numbers of foreign intelligence targets, but three years ago the White house also began allowing the agency to search communications streams for some types of Internet protocol addresses or hacker signatures such as malware..

Warrantless surveillance is a constitutional issue that should be publicly debated

Government officials have defended law enforcement agencies’ monitoring of suspected hackers as a requirement to Americans from the aggressive cyber activities of a number of foreign governments. Critics of the policy say this kind of domestic surveillance is a problematic trade-off of basic civil rights that should be debated publicly.

The activities of the NSA clearly run “smack into law enforcement land,” noted Jonathan Mayer, a cybersecurity scholar at Stanford Law School who is an expert on privacy issues and who reviewed several of the documents. “That’s a major policy decision about how to structure cybersecurity in the U.S. and not a conversation that has been had in public.”

Moreover, it is not clear what standards are being used to choose targets for the warrantless surveillance. Cybersecurity experts also point out it is often hard to know for sure who is behind a particular attack no matter where it originates as criminal gangs do a lot of hacking in foreign countries such as Russis and China, and the NSA is legally required to focus on foreign intelligence, not domestic law enforcement.

Privacy activists also highlight that the government can also gather a large amount of data on Americans (ranging from private emails to trade secrets and business dealing) using internet surveillance because monitoring the data flowing to a hacker means copying the information as the hacker steals it.