A government agency has been collecting the phone records of tens of millions of citizens “on an ongoing daily basis” in the name of “national security” as directed by a “secret order.”
The same government agency has been obtaining direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other major U.S. internet companies.
Is this legal?
Should we be freaking out that, via these programs, the government could be collecting information about communications made entirely within the U.S. and without a warrant?
NSA Surveillance of Verizon Phone Records
The U.S. agency in question is the National Security Agency (NSA). Since April 25, millions of Americans have had metadataabout their phone records collected under a “secret order” signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).The document was published by the Guardian on Wednesday.
Private information about the contents of the phone calls, or about the names or addresses of customers, is not included in the records. But metadata, “data about the data,” is gathered, including every caller’s and recipient’s phone numbers, the unique serial number of the phones used and the time and duration that each call lasts. The location of the two participants can also be collected.
Some say that collecting phone record metadata is tantamount to seeing the envelope of a letter but not the contents inside. But as privacy advocates (citing the recent subpoenas of the call records, including telephone metadata, of Associate Press journalists) point out, there’s plenty that can be gleaned from just that.
PRISM: The Government Has Direct Access to Communications on Google and Facebook
The NSA has been able to tap directly into the servers of major Internet companies, another secret document — a 41-page Powerpoint presentation dated April 2013 — obtained by the Guardian reveals.
Via a program called PRISM, government officials can collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats. Since the program was started in 2007, those participating in it include Microsoft (whose current advertising campaign trumpets that “Your privacy is our priority”), Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple — that is, the very companies that provide us with most of the online email, search, video and communications networks that we use to communicate.
According to the document obtained by the Guardian, “PRISM was introduced to overcome what the NSA regarded as shortcomings of FISA warrants in tracking suspected foreign terrorists.” The U.S. is described as having a “home-field” advantage as so much of the Internet’s architecture is housed in it. Under FISA, both the sender and receiver of a communication must be outside the U.S.; this is seen as a “shortcoming” in the information that the NSA could obtain about suspected foreign terrorists.
PRISM enables the government to go directly to the servers of Facebook and other companies, to obtain communications without having to obtain court orders and without having to make any requests to service providers. Both stored communications as well as real-time collection of targeted users’ information can be acquired.
The Patriot Act is Very Much Alive, Well and in Use
Both the NSA’s collecting of Verizon phone records and the PRISM program are being justified as falling under the Bush-era Patriot Act, according to which the government can have access to business records for “foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.”
U.S. spy chief James Clapper has affirmed the existence of PRISM and denounced its disclosure as “reprehensible.” Verizon, Google and the other companies have all denied granting access to the government.
In the wake of the documents’ disclosure, government authorities have been defending the collecting of users’ records and other data as being authorized under law, known to Congress and necessary in the fight against terrorism. Noting that the secret court order published this week by the Guardian is, as far as she knows, “the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said at an impromptu press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday that “this is called protecting America. People want the homeland kept safe.”
Civil Liberties Are Under Threat
Eeven as all three branches of the U.S. government are asserting that they have signed off on the surveillance programs, civil liberties advocates have been aghast at the revelation of just how far individual’s rights are being infringed upon in the digital age. Said Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union, “A pox on all the three houses of government. On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values.”
In contrast to his criticism of many of former President George W. Bush’s policies, President Obama has, in the case of government surveillance, pursued the same policies. Indeed, he has done so “even more vigorously” and at a time when his administration is seeking to make China abandon its own program of cyber-espionage.
The recent revelations about how NSA can be said to be spying on millions of Americans make it clear that, in the effort to protect Americans, the government has far too broadly interpreted the power it has to infringe on the right to privacy of the country’s citizens. On Thursday, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, who introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, stated that he is “extremely troubled by the F.B.I.’s interpretation” of the law. Noting his concern about its possible abuse, Sensenbrenner said that “seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.”
Americans certainly don’t think that they live in a police state. But under the Patriot Act, and the government’s use, implementation and even abuse of power in the name of protecting homeland security, something like the modern surveillance state has and is being created.
That very thought should make a person at least consider freaking out.
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