Yes, the Government Has Access to Your Data

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 ageSaid 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.


Photo from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Nina Giordano
Nina Giordano4 years ago

Yep, that's the Government and America everyone protects with our lives...myself included. I am sorry.

Brent V.
Brent V4 years ago

OK ok I get it but what do we do about it !
As we can all see the whistle blowers protection is not working and the messenger it seems is getting shot!

Deborah W.
Deborah W4 years ago

ObamaNation ... George Orwell revisited.

Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia4 years ago

If the government finds what every American does interesting, they more time on their hands than I thought they had.

Jane R.
Jane R4 years ago

I think this so wrong, but there's nothing we can do about it. I'm glad I wont be around in 40 years or so, to see what this country does to it's people.

Virginia Belder
Virginia Belder4 years ago


James Holland
Elizabeth Keenan4 years ago

If you voted for Bush, you are partially responsible for the Patriot Act, which makes all this legal. Stop whining, you asked for it, you got it.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

...and he criticized Bush for what he did. Obama is multiplying it by about a thousand! Which is something he would NOT do! Just another lie!

Dominic C.
Dominic C4 years ago

You see, information is just so much easier to obtain and one does not need a gun or a hitman to do the job. The flow of information is such at ease that a 5 year old kid can ask a parent what's beastiality? As for me, I learned that definition in my senior year abnormal psychology.Internet controls? Forget it, all a child needs is to get to a cyber cafe, friends house with wifi and any place they can get wifi. A child spends more time on the internet and the computer than on the TV. TV ain't interesting anymore because of all the nonsensical commercials and breakups of the series to accommodate them. TV is only for live sports but then we can also watch it on the computer.

Edward Snowden and Manning, your blowing whistle for your sake of information liberty is nonsensical. You guys need to think of the masses and not yourselves. As intelligent officers you ought to use your skills to negotiate with your bosses and protect 300 million Americans but you have not done at all except to say that the Gov is tightening the net and communication lines. Dudes, Thumbs down, and I'll send you your six pack when you are in prison!