The National Security Agency is collecting information from email address books and instant messaging accounts around the world, including many belonging to Americans, the Washington Post reports.
The NSA intercepts the information as it moves electronically around the world. Although the collection is done overseas, it ends up including U.S. accounts.
But Shawn Turner, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Post the agency is focused on finding information about terrorists, human traffickers, and drug smugglers.
"We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans," the spokesperson said.
Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, was far from mollified.
"This revelation further confirms that the NSA has relied on the pretense of 'foreign intelligence gathering' to sweep up an extraordinary amount of information about everyday Americans," he said in an emailed statement.
"The NSA's indiscriminate collection of information about innocent people can't be justified on security grounds, and it presents a serious threat to civil liberties," he said.