Journalism in the Public Interest

FAQ: What You Need to Know About the NSA’s Surveillance Programs

A detailed snapshot of what’s known about the NSA surveillance programs.

Construction trailers sit in front of the new National Security Agency (NSA) data center June 10, 2013 in Bluffdale, Utah. The center, a large data farm that is set to open in the fall of 2013, will be the largest of several interconnected NSA data centers spread throughout the country. (George Frey/Getty Images)

This story was originally published on June 27, 2013.

There have been a lot of news stories about NSA surveillance programs following the leaks of secret documents by Edward Snowden. But it seems the more we read, the less clear things are. We've put together a detailed snapshot of what's known and what's been reported where.

What information does the NSA collect and how?

We don’t know all of the different types of information the NSA collects, but several secret collection programs have been revealed:

A record of most calls made in the U.S., including the telephone number of the phones making and receiving the call, and how long the call lasted. This information is known as “metadata” and doesn’t include a recording of the actual call (but see below). This program was revealed through a leaked secret court order instructing Verizon to turn over all such information on a daily basis. Other phone companies, including AT&T and Sprint, also reportedly give their records to the NSA on a continual basis. All together, this is several billion calls per day.

Email, Facebook posts and instant messages for an unknown number of people, via PRISM, which involves the cooperation of at least nine different technology companies. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others have denied that the NSA has “direct access” to their servers, saying they only release user information in response to a court order. Facebook has revealed that, in the last six months of 2012, they handed over the private data of between 18,000 and 19,000 users to law enforcement of all types -- including local police and federal agencies, such as the FBI, Federal Marshals and the NSA.

Massive amounts of raw Internet traffic The NSA intercepts huge amounts of raw data, and stores billions of communication records per day in its databases. Using the NSA’s XKEYSCORE software, analysts can see “nearly everything a user does on the Internet” including emails, social media posts, web sites you visit, addresses typed into Google Maps, files sent, and more. Currently the NSA is only authorized to intercept Internet communications with at least one end outside the U.S., though the domestic collection program used to be broader. But because there is no fully reliable automatic way to separate domestic from international communications, this program also captures some amount of U.S. citizens’ purely domestic Internet activity, such as emails, social media posts, instant messages, the sites you visit and online purchases you make.

The contents of an unknown number of phone calls There have been several reports that the NSA records the audio contents of some phone calls and a leaked document confirms this. This reportedly happens “on a much smaller scale” than the programs above, after analysts select specific people as “targets.” Calls to or from U.S. phone numbers can be recorded, as long as the other end is outside the U.S. or one of the callers is involved in "international terrorism". There does not seem to be any public information about the collection of text messages, which would be much more practical to collect in bulk because of their smaller size.

The NSA has been prohibited from recording domestic communications since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act but at least two of these programs -- phone records collection and Internet cable taps -- involve huge volumes of Americans’ data.

Does the NSA record everything about everyone, all the time?

The NSA records as much information as it can, subject to technical limitations (there’s a lot of data) and legal constraints. This currently includes the metadata for nearly all telephone calls made in the U.S. (but not their content) and massive amounts of Internet traffic with at least one end outside the U.S. It’s not clear exactly how many cables have been tapped, though we know of at least one inside the U.S., a secret report about the program by the NSA’s Inspector General mentions multiple cables, and the volume of intercepted information is so large that it was processed at 150 sites around the world as of 2008. We also know that Britain’s GCHQ, which shares some intelligence with the NSA, had tapped over 200 cables as of 2012, belonging to seven different telecommunications companies.           

Until 2011 the NSA also operated a domestic Internet metadata program which collected mass records of who emailed who even if both parties were inside the U.S.

Because it is not always possible to separate domestic from foreign communications by automatic means, the NSA still captures some amount of purely domestic information, and it is allowed to do so by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The collected information covers “nearly everything a user does on the Internet,” according to a presentation on the XKEYSCORE system. The slides specifically mention emails, Facebook chats, websites visited, Google Maps searches, transmitted files, photographs, and documents of different kinds. It’s also possible to search for people based on where they are connecting from, the language they use, or their use of privacy technologies such as VPNs and encryption, according to the slides.

This is a massive amount of data. The full contents of intercepted Internet traffic can only be stored for up to a few days, depending on the collection site, while the associated “metadata” (who communicated with whom online) is stored up to 30 days. Telephone metadata is smaller and is stored for five years. NSA analysts can move specific data to more permanent databases when they become relevant to an investigation.

The NSA also collects narrower and more detailed information on specific people, such as the actual audio of phone calls and the entire content of email accounts. NSA analysts can submit a request to obtain these types of more detailed information about specific people.

Watching a specific person like this is called “targeting” by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law which authorizes this type of individual surveillance. The NSA is allowed to record the conversations of non-Americans without a specific warrant for each person monitored, if at least one end of the conversation is outside of the U.S. It is also allowed to record the communications of Americans if they are outside the U.S. and the NSA first gets a warrant for each case. It’s not known exactly how many people the NSA is currently targeting, but according to a leaked report the NSA intercepted content from 37,664 telephone numbers and email addresses from October 2001 to January 2007. Of these, 8% were domestic: 2,612 U.S. phone numbers and 406 U.S. email addresses.

How the NSA actually gets the data depends on the type of information requested. If the analyst wants someone's private emails or social media posts, the NSA must request that specific data from companies such as Google and Facebook. Some technology companies (we don't know which ones) have FBI monitoring equipment installed "on the premises" and the NSA gets the information via the FBI's Data Intercept Technology Unit. The NSA also has the capability to monitor calls made over the Internet (such as Skype calls) and instant messaging chats as they happen.

For information that is already flowing through Internet cables that the NSA is monitoring, or the audio of phone calls, a targeting request instructs automatic systems to watch for the communications of a specific person and save them.

It’s important to note that the NSA probably has information about you even if you aren’t on this target list. If you have previously communicated with someone who has been targeted, then the NSA already has the content of any emails, instant messages, phone calls, etc. you exchanged with the targeted person. Also, your data is likely in bulk records such as phone metadata and Internet traffic recordings. This is what makes these programs “mass surveillance,” as opposed to traditional wiretaps, which are authorized by individual, specific court orders.

What does phone call metadata information reveal, if it doesn’t include the content of the calls?

Even without the content of all your conversations and text messages, so-called “metadata” can reveal a tremendous amount about you. If they have your metadata, the NSA would have a record of your entire address book, or at least every person you’ve called in the last several years. They can guess who you are close to by how often you call someone, and when. By correlating the information from multiple people, they can do sophisticated “network analysis” of communities of many different kinds, personal or professional -- or criminal.

Phone company call records reveal where you were at the time that a call was made, because they include the identifier of the radio tower that transmitted the call to you. The government has repeatedly denied that it collects this information, but former NSA employee Thomas Drake said they do. For a sense of just how powerful location data can be, see this visualization following a German politician everywhere he goes for months, based on his cellphone’s location information.

Even without location data, records of who communicated with whom can be used to discover the structure of groups planning terrorism. Starting from a known "target" (see above), analysts typically reconstruct the social network "two or three hops" out, examining all friends-of-friends, or even friends-of-friends-of-friends, in the search for new targets. This means potentially thousands or millions of people might be examined when investigating a single target.

Metadata is a sensitive topic because there is great potential for abuse. While no one has claimed the NSA is doing this, it would be possible to use metadata to algorithmically identify, with some accuracy, members of other types of groups like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, gun owners, undocumented immigrants, etc. An expert in network analysis could start with all of the calls made from the time and place of a protest, and trace the networks of associations out from there.

Phone metadata is also not “anonymous” in any real sense. The NSA already maintains a database of the phone numbers of all Americans for use in determining whether someone is a “U.S. person” (see below), and there are several commercial number-to-name services in any case. Phone records become even more powerful when they are correlated with other types of data, such as social media posts, local police records and credit card purchase information, a process known as intelligence fusion.

Does the NSA need an individualized warrant to listen to my calls or look at my emails?

It’s complicated, but not in all cases. Leaked court orders set out the "minimization" procedures that govern what the NSA can do with the domestic information it has intercepted. The NSA is allowed to store this domestic information because of the technical difficulties in separating foreign from domestic communications when large amounts of data are being captured.

Another document shows that individual intelligence analysts make the decision to look at previously collected bulk information. They must document their request, but only need approval from their "shift coordinator." If the analyst later discovers that they are looking at the communications of a U.S. person, they must destroy the data.

However, if the intercepted information is “reasonably believed to contain evidence of a crime” then the NSA is allowed to turn it over to federal law enforcement. Unless there are other (still secret) restrictions on how the NSA can use this data this means the police might end up with your private communications without ever having to get approval from a judge, effectively circumventing the whole notion of probable cause.

This is significant because thousands or millions of people might fall into the extended social network of a single known target, but it is not always possible to determine whether someone is a U.S. person before looking at their data. For example, it’s not usually possible to tell just from someone’s email address, which is why the NSA maintains a database of known U.S. email addresses and phone numbers. Internal documents state that analysts need only “51% confidence” that someone is a non-U.S. person before looking at their data, and if the NSA does not have “specific information” about someone, that person is “presumed to be a non-United States person.”

Also, the NSA is allowed to provide any of its recorded information to the FBI, if the FBI specifically asks for it.

Is all of this legal?

Yes, assuming the NSA adheres to the restrictions set out in recently leaked court orders. By definition, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decides what it is legal for the NSA to do. But this level of domestic surveillance wasn’t always legal, and the NSA's domestic surveillance program has been found to violate legal standards on more than one occasion.

The NSA was gradually granted the authority to collect domestic information on a massive scale through a series of legislative changes and court decisions over the decade following September 11, 2001. See this timeline of loosening laws. The Director of National Intelligence says that authority for PRISM programs comes from section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Verizon metadata collection order cites section 215 of the Patriot Act. The author of the Patriot Act disagrees that the act justifies the Verizon metadata collection program.

The NSA's broad data collection programs were originally authorized by President Bush on October 4, 2001. The program operated that way for several years, but in March 2004 a Justice Department review declared the bulk Internet metadata program was illegal. President Bush signed an order re-authorizing it anyway. In response, several top Justice Department officials threatened to resign, including acting Attorney General James Comey and FBI director Robert Mueller. Bush backed down, and the Internet metadata program was suspended for several months. By 2007, all aspects of the program were re-authorized by court orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In 2009, the Justice Department acknowledged that the NSA had collected emails and phone calls of Americans in a way that exceeded legal limitations.

In October 2011, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled that the NSA violated the Fourth Amendment at least once. The Justice Department has said that this ruling must remain secret, but we know it concerned some aspect of the "minimization" rules the govern what the NSA can do with domestic communications. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court recently decided that this ruling can be released, but Justice Department has not yet done so.

Civil liberties groups including the EFF and the ACLU dispute the constitutionality of these programs and have filed lawsuits to challenge them.

How long can the NSA keep information on Americans?

The NSA can generally keep intercepted domestic communications for up to five years. It can keep them indefinitely under certain circumstances, such as when the communication contains evidence of a crime or when it’s “foreign intelligence information,” a broad legal term that includes anything relevant to “the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States.”

The NSA can also keep encrypted communications indefinitely. That includes any information sent to or from a secure web site, that is, a site with a URL starting with "https".

Does the NSA do anything to protect Americans’ privacy?

Yes. First, the NSA is only allowed to intercept communications if at least one end of the conversation is outside of the U.S. -- though it doesn't have to distinguish domestic from foreign communication until the "earliest practicable point" which allows the NSA to record bulk information from Internet cables and sort it out later. When the NSA discovers that previously intercepted information belongs to an American, it must usually destroy that information. Because this determination cannot always be made by computer, this sometimes happens only after a human analyst has already looked at it.

The NSA also must apply certain safeguards. For example, the NSA must withhold the names of U.S. persons who are not relevant to ongoing investigations when they distribute information -- unless that person’s communications contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to a range of national security and foreign intelligence concerns.

Also, analysts must document why they believe someone is outside of the U.S. when they ask for addition information to be collected on that person. An unknown number of these cases are audited internally. If the NSA makes a mistake and discovers that it has targeted someone inside the U.S., it has five days to submit a report to the Department of Justice and other authorities.

What if I’m not an American?

All bets are off. There do not appear to be any legal restrictions on what the NSA can do with the communications of non-U.S. persons. Since a substantial fraction of the world’s Internet data passes through the United States, or its allies, the U.S. has the ability to observe and record the communications of much of the world’s population. The European Union has already complained to the U.S. Attorney General.

The U.S. is hardly the only country doing mass surveillance, though its program is very large. GCHQ, which is the British counterpart to the NSA, has a similar surveillance program and shares data with the NSA. Many countries now have some sort of mass Internet surveillance now in place. Although passive surveillance is often hard to detect, more aggressive governments use intercepted information to intimidate or control their citizens, including Syria, Iran, Egypt, Bahrain and China. Much of the required equipment is sold to these governments by American companies.

Riccardo Cabeza

June 27, 2013, 9:32 a.m.

“The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decides what it is legal for the NSA to do.” Thats the problem. Secret courts issuing secret rulings based on arguments made by state secret fetishists in the DoJ.

There is no accountability and the NSA is already to big to fail. Meanwhile the obstructionist in the House will try to get a 39th vote to repeal Obamacare while ignoring voter rights for all Americans that were just lost. Oh, and Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.

I disagree with a few points, here.

First, this whole thing is drawing conclusions based on a limited number of leaks.  They don’t tell the whole story, and every leak shows the program to have wider scope and less oversight.  We’re also relying on double-talking officials who don’t see a database of everybody’s e-mail as a “collection.”

Second, I believe the article seems to misunderstand the “minimization” rules, which, true, say that they only want foreign information about attacks, but then goes on to say that only a presumption of foreign-ness is needed, and communications by Americans can be retained and used if they potentially contain any evidence of any crime or threat of crime.  Oh, and also if you encrypt anything.  Regardless, there’s no way to know any of these things unless someone actually investigates the communication, meaning that the program violates privacy to hypothetically protect it.

Third, the assertion that they don’t record phone calls is incompatible with collecting massive amounts of Internet traffic.  That’s how your phone calls are transmitted, after all, except (maybe) local calls, from copper line to copper line (i.e., if it only passes through the exchange box in your neighborhood).  They may not be intentionally doing so (doubtful) and they may not explicitly listen to them, but they’re there.

Fourth, one problem with metadata is that it can mean anything except the phone call itself.  All metadata means is “content about content.”  It would be easy, for example, to say that your tone of voice and a transcript of your call would be metadata.  Recordings of every call to your number except this current one could be metadata.  Think about website cookies and the enormous amounts of information some sites store about you through that; that’s all metadata, since it’s not the page you asked to see.

Last, while the government passed laws legalizing these actions, the laws (as Dick Cheney proudly explained last weekend) were passed under false pretenses, and they violate half the Bill of Rights plus long-standing laws like Posse Comitatus.  As such, the laws are illegal and even treasonous, as they stand in opposition of the Constitution.

Riccardo is also absolutely right.  A secret court issuing secret rulings on secret (interpretations of) laws isn’t oversight.  They don’t have a mailing address, they refuse FoIA requests, and they approve pretty much any request for a warrant.  If that’s oversight, it’s the kind of oversight a lot of teenagers would love to have, with the same predictable results of giving it to them.

I forgot one other problem.  Among the insane security news over the last few weeks, there was also the revelation that the UK also has an Internet dragnet, which it sometimes shares with select allies.

Just because the NSA proper doesn’t collect/gather/copy/whatever something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re not receiving it from an outside source with different rules that they probably helped set up.

It’s probably worth, in this context, remembering Marie Colvin’s death by missile that locked on to her phone.  It’s a safe bet that technology came from either the US or the UK.  Who else did we sell surveillance technology to, and then turn a blind eye when it’s used against Americans?

Regardless of alleged safeguards, no one in any country under any circumstances in any era can ever be trusted not to abuse such as this at some point and all to the detriment of its citizenry. For the U.S., it is just a matter of time.

William Hewitt

June 27, 2013, 1:52 p.m.

Snowden is a true American hero! The foreigner President Obama and henchmen Feinstein, Pelosi, Reed, Boehner, King are traitors for scrapping America’s constitution. We will dedicate ourselves to electing republican Rand Paul President of US and restoring our constitution, privacy, economy, health, and ending the illegal Patriot Act, FISA star chamber. America does not have liberty because our elected leaders have embraced Tyranny, Torture, and 3rd Reich brutality of NSA and their hired thugs! Are we allowed to spit on Obama and Feinstein and Boehner for treason and lies and illegal wars and autism epidemic and Alzheimer’s epidemic via contaminated vaccines using aborted human fetal cell lines with DNA fragments the same substrate length as the vaccinated victim of 450 bp which created an environmental trigger disrupting the immune system and robbing the body of protective Glutathione and Metallothionein which turned toxic mercury into the exotic killer of brain neuron degeneration leaving a crippled autistic 6 million children? President Barack Hussein Obama and these Congressional traitors just abandoned the 6 million vaccine injured autistic children by excluding them from Obamacare because each autism child requires $3.2 million healthcare bill and Obamacare can not afford that. How are the parents going to afford the $3.2 million (CDC data) healthcare cost?
It is not too late to rebel against terrorist foreigner Obama and henchman Pelosi and Feinstein. We can march and demand or secede from the union or hold a new constitutional convention and scrap Congress and FISA star chamber and Obama! Snowden is a true American hero! We could elect him to Congress with a $BILLION pension!

Rand Paul for President. Where is Obama’s birth certificate so we can ship him out. All you NSA workers must report back to work and don’t forget to swear allegiance to Obama before entering gate. You are being watched and guards have loaded guns with dum dums.

I take issue with this statement:

“Is all of this legal?

Yes, assuming the NSA adheres to the restrictions set out in recently leaked court orders. By definition, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decides what it is legal for the NSA to do.”

Particularly in light of this:

“However, if the intercepted information is “reasonably believed to contain evidence of a crime” then the NSA is allowed to turn it over to federal law enforcement. Unless there are other (still secret) restrictions on how the NSA can use this data this means the police might end up with your private communications without ever having to get approval from a judge, effectively circumventing the whole notion of probable cause.”

What is described in the latter quote is not “legal.”  It is unconstitutional and violates the 4th amendment.  It is incorrect to say it is ‘legal.’  It may be conduct carried out pursuant to a statute, but it is very doubtful that this procedure is legal under the 4th amendment - inconceivable, actually. 

It would be helpful if journalists would make this important distinction.  I have seen it said before that the programs are ‘legal.’  But the way they are set up, we cannot challenge their obvious illegality in court.  That is illegal, too, IMO.  It is unconstitutionmal to have secret laws that cannot be challenged in court.  The fisa court is not a real court but an administrative body that only listens to the government and works in total secrecy.

It would be more accurate to say the conduct is ‘legal’ in that is it permissible under a statute, but it is doubtful, or open to question whether such conduct is constitutional - and hence legal - under the 4th amendment to the constitution.

Normally, citizens can challenge statutes for constitutionality in court.  That is not possible with secret laws and secret conduct.  This may be an additional reason why the statutory framework that permits this conduct is itself illegal or unconstitutional.

Oh, about those warrants that are supposedly ‘necessary’ before the NSA can start listening in on your calls…here’s how that warrant is developed:

First, NSA issues a request to the secret FISA court, which is written in boilerplate fashion to the effect that ‘this is a non-US person based upon the totality of the circumstances and information available with respect to that person.’

Then the FISA court rubber-stamps the warrant. At that point all of that person’s communications and all of every other person’s phone calls and emails, who have ever communicated with that person are recorded and listened to.

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t believe that issue was described in this FAQ. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

But essentially that process shreds another part of the Constitution, specifically the 4th Amendment which states that warrants are only allowed that “particularly describe” what is to be searched and seized.

The NSA is grabbing everything. Nothing is particularly described in any part of the warrant.

So basically everything below “Is All Of This Legal?” above is tainted and incorrectly gives the NSA (and FISA judges) way too much credit for protecting Americans.

All of this information came from the original Snowden leak and is clearly described in: Glen Greenwald’s Guardian column of 6/18 entitled “FISA Court Oversight: A Look Inside A Secret and Empty Process.”

So when anyone tells you that you are still protected from NSA listening in on your phone calls, unless you call a terrorist, because that requires a warrant…is lying.

Lets see some research on American foreign policy from the last century or so; the root cause of much of the ‘terror’ we experience today; if you don’t have any enemies you manufacture them. Oh, peace negotiations, non-lethal resolutions to conflict? What are they?

The article seems to be NSA “sourced”.
Therefore, considering the very dark history of the agency (not taking into consideration all the other dirty intelligence agencies operating inside and out of the US) anybody who considers any of the professed “limitations” on spying on Americans from this article has to be a downright fool.

Great article, jonathan. I note that almost all of the replies come from the government-is-against-us lunatic fringe. It’s really too bad the right wing Echo Chamber has done such a masterful job denigrating the Federal government, most people instinctively react with disdain from even life saving protocol our military intelligence team supplies. They prefer to be technologically raped by FaceBook or Verizon.

The NSA has been doing this for a very long time, in fact Mike Wallace exposed it on 60 Minutes in the 1990s, why is everyone so shopcked? Back then I remember Mike saying only foreign corporations were upset believing they were losing trade secrets because of the NSA system and those secrets were being passed along to our domestic corporations for a competitive advantage. Of course the NSA denied that also.

You forgot to mention that most of this surveillance is contracted out to private corporations, and who knows what they’re doing with it?

SeattleGuy, I, for one, am all for government.  I am, however, against any government that refuses to serve the people and refuses to protect the people.  When I was growing up, we laughed at the Soviet Union for wasting years, rubles, and lives in Afghanistan.  We laughed at them for arresting people for the sin of taking pictures of public places.  We laughed at them for monitoring the population based on paranoia of enemies everywhere.

They were wrong to do that.  Our government is wrong to do the same things.

Interesting that you think anybody against military surveillance is all for corporate surveillance, though.  I’m guessing you didn’t pick through those articles to see the same people making similar comments, there.

Maybe people—despite the media’s claims to the contrary—actually do care about their privacy and you’re just not paying attention…?

@john- I have seen no evidence of our government “refusing to protect the people” or arresting people for simply taking pictures? Unless you mean a terrorist casing a target, that is preposterous. Where did you get that notion? It doesn’t happen, period.

I wasn’t saying I’m FOR corporate surveillance at all. Quite the contrary. What I was trying to focus on was the fact that all of the anti-NSA push back was stupid in light of the fact that ordinary citizens readily give more permission to corporations who sell it and misuse it. In addition, local police have access to even more data in the form of cell tower data that tracks an individual’s movement, so what is the big deal? How can someone claim they want to protect their privacy from those who are trying to protect us from terrorism while at the same time allowing the wholesale use of it for social media and advertisers, for example. Do you thinkg it is just because folks didn’t know what has been routine for more than 30 years? I just don’t get it. It seems disproportionate to the minimal invasion of PRISM.

Seattle Guy, I beg to differ.  I’m a free lance photographer and have been stopped and asked for ID, innumerable times, searched frequently and arrested twice (but cooler heads prevailed at the Sargent level and nothing came of it).  All of this because I was photographing in public places - which is very legal.  I am not a terrorist, don’t look like a terrorist, and always show my ID card (though not my drivers license which has my address, nor my SS card for obvious reasons).  I’m over 60 and am no threat to anyone.

If you think PRISM is minimal then you would just love China, Egypt and Jordan.  The thing that bothers me most, and probably many others as well, is the self-righteous declarations that China and Russia are hacking into our computers, while we are doing the same to them and just about everyone else.  We decry when other countries monitor their citizens every call and email, but do the same ourselves.  Let’s not forget the predecessors to PRISM; ECHELON and CARNIVOR.

All the evidence is not released yet but what has been released should be enough to have the US infront of an International Court or a UN Board of Inquiry.  So, on top of drone strikes anywhere in the world the US want to strike, our penchant for ‘renditioning’ anyone we want, and our habit of supporting the overthrow of leaders we don’t like, we now add spying on our friends on a massive scale.  We are certainly a Shining Example of how Democracy works that other People would want to emmulate.

SeattleGuy, you seem to be specifically avoiding the point.

It’s bad when the NSA monitors people.
It’s bad when the police monitor people.
It’s bad when companies monitor people.

None of them is acceptable.  None.  Of.  Them.

However, the NSA currently has the strongest proof, and the Constitution (and Posse Comitatus—the NSA is military, being under the DoD) provides the strongest case against them.  That makes them the place to start.

For reference, here’s what’s violated in the Bill of Rights:
- First Amendment:  There’s an obvious chilling effect on freedom of expression, assembly, and petition.  It enables a direct assault on the press.
- Fourth Amendment:  This is a warrantless search and seizure.  You can argue that FISA issues the warrants, but (a) they’re not tailored, (b) there’s no probable cause, and (c) it’s a secret court that can’t be challenged, and that doesn’t usually count.
- Fifth Amendment:  Since they reserve the right to save and use any evidence of a crime, you lose protection against self-incrimination.  They see it, you’re guilty, even if they’re wrong.
- Sixth Amendment:  You and all your contacts can be investigated without any confrontation, and we’ve already seen that the word “terrorism” magically makes your right to a jury trial go away.
- Seventh Amendment:  Threat to property is included in reasons to keep a file on an American, which means civil crime is now p
- Ninth Amendment:  The government may not declare privacy a non-right.

Now, you may not care about your rights.  You might be happier living in a country where any “officials” can strip anybody of their civil liberties merely because it’s convenient, and might be confident it’ll never be you.  Or maybe you think that there are terrorists using GMail behind every tree discussing how best to slit your throat and the only possible way to protect yourself is to let the government treat you like a potential terrorist.  I don’t know and it’s probably not my business.

But you’re very quick to dismiss everybody’s civil rights, which generations of Americans sacrificed to ensure, to build a country that everybody used to envy.  To me, that’s as childish and self-centered as saying that it’s fine that some groups around the world practice genital mutilation because you don’t have those kinds of genitals.  It’s just pointless to say that it’s a good practice because some people get tortured to death.

And where did I get the idea that photographers get arrested?  The signs every five feet near landmarks in New York City, maybe, threatening photographers with arrest.  From photographers (such as Peter—not me, I’m not a camera guy, myself) who have been arrested until someone realized there was nothing to charge them with.  From organizations like “Photography Is Not a Crime” that fight the trend.

You can probably confirm that faster than I can post links.

Tell Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics at MIT and peace activist, and Joseph Stiglitz, economic Nobel laureate, to petition the Norwegian Nobel Committee to rescind Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and give one to Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange.

@peterboyle- How do you know you don’t look like a terrorist? My wife is routinely given extra attention almost every time we go through TSA screening. So what? It means nothing.
The government, much less your local police are not going to give up surveillance just because it inconveniences you a little. BFD. It’s legal and efficient. If you have better methods, have at it.

@john- Why is it bad for the NSA or police to protect the public? Please explain. Every single one of the so-called issues you raise has been dealt with by Congress, the SCOTUS and the President(s). No one’s civil right have been taken away. That’s hogwash. Just because you don’t like it is not enough to eliminate these successful programs. Wow! Warnings not to photograph potential terrorist targets? What a surprise. You obviously don’t remember them being targets.

SeattleGuy, point to the evidence.  If it’s successful, outline the process that these programs were a major part of defusing any threat.  And also explain how this failed at the Boston Marathon, when there was actual evidence of what was going to happen handed to us.

Not handwaving.  Not assertions.  Evidence.  Seriously, how many people at the Boston Marathon did we save with PRISM or metadata?  Because that should have been a slam dunk.

OK, so you don’t care about or even understand civil rights.  Fine.  You believe that the government should operate unconstrained.  Fine.  You think that it’s great to arrest people for photography because a terrorist might not…I don’t know, be able to buy a postcard or can’t find a building without a picture.  Fine.  You’re wrong and willfully ignorant on all counts, but that’s your problem, not mine.

But if you’re going to ignore the damage, then you need to show the merit or the “success.”

And I’m sorry, how many friends did you have die in the World Trade Center?  I had more than ten, plus a friend who’s the sole survivor of his company.  Others are sick from living too close.  You want to tell me that I don’t care or don’t remember, again?  Perhaps I don’t have perspective?  You’re not very bright if you’re going to try to play that game with a New Yorker?

Wasn’t the underware dude flying into Detroit on Christmas a couple years ago a success? I don’t know if PRISM was involved with that, but then I don’t know if it wasn’t, I’m not FBI or CIA or NSA, and while they didn’t report on the nightly news PRISM was involved, I imagine that’s the way the would want it.

@john-Remember when the right wing Echo Chamber (FOX News & WSJ) kept repeating that Plame wasn’t covert. They said the CIA would have confirmed that if true. Well, Plame was covert and the pointy-hat Cheney crowd knew they wouldn’t confirm they even knew her.

The Boston bombers were home grown terrorists. These are the toughest ones to locate. More than likely they had no communication with known terrorists abroad. Ironically, since they were radicalized here, the NSA programs should not have caught them, because THEY ARE NOT TARGETING AMERICANS due to the arbitrary limitations of the sweep. Why can’t you see this obvious fact?

The NSA took the unusual step and came out last week to identify a couple of their successes. They have some 50 since 911.

What damages? No reasonable person thinks this way. Honestly, just so you can cheat on your wife or taxes without worrying about government detecting it? Just stop calling friends in Pakistan.

You have the choice of either believing the best military intel people in the World or the right wing press. This shouldn’t be hard.

@nick- They caught the underwear bomber. I doubt he thinks he was successful, but he did get through. I never would have thought you were FBI, CIA or NSA. No, they don’t normally update nets outlets about their activities. Guess why?

I would love to respond to your point. I just can’t understand the point you’re trying to make. Why don’t we both wait until the drugs wear off.

@tiffany- As an ardent fan of Stiglitz and to some extent, Chomsky, I think I understand their dismay. I don’t believe, though, they have got this right. Snowden, Manning, Assange and their ilk are extremely dangerous to our national security. It is far easier to complain than actually come up with real world solutions. There is no other way to characterize it.
Here is some interesting reading to better understand the current administration’s approach to this issue. I think it is relevant to our discussion:

@Seattle Guy - The FBI had informed the Boston Police about the possibility that extremists might plan some “small scale bombings” at the finish line but didn’t say there was an imminent threat or identify possible suspects.

However, the FBI never shared with local law enforcement agencies that Tsarnaev had visited Dagestan (for 6 months, hel.lo) and that FBI and Russian officials were concerned he and possibly his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, might become radicalized extremists.  Had they shared this info with local police, the outcome might have been different.

So, the pieces of the puzzle were there, but no one put them together because evidently there’s plenty of focus on gathering intelligence, but not too much about utilizing it.

This is what happened with the 9/11 bombings, when no less than 9 countries reporting to the administration, FBI and CIA, warnings about a planned Al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. possibly involving multiple plane hijackings. 

Although denied by Condy (Rice) as unspecific threats usually citing attacks on other countries, one of the President’s Daily Briefings sometime in August was titled something like Osama Bin Laden Determined to Strike US.

We don’t need mass surveillance, we need better processes to share information with the people who need to know.  Instead of secret courts, why not spend money on staffing, training and procedures for cross agency dissemination so the people on the ground know what’s going on and are prepared to act on it.

I don’t understand the comment about your drugs wearing off?

What about the video cameras at virtually every intersection in this country? And please don’t try to tell me that they are “just simple, low-res, fixed-lens cameras solely used for traffic counting purposes” as I was once told by a DOT official. I have a good friend, a journeyman electrician, who worked on the Phase II and Phase III up-grades to the cameras and supporting systems, and they aren’t there to count cars. These sophisticated cameras are hardened against most firearms and are high-res, zoomable, and steerable—none of which might be considered remotely essential to monitor traffic flow. The output from the cameras is routed to a server from which DOT & Police have limited access and then from there the data is uplinked to “somewhere near the east coast” (think Virginia). Accurate facial recognition functions are only part of the capability of the system. Do we need to observe every citizen who drives a vehicle on the extremely slim chance of “catching a terrorist”? When I read or hear people talking about how it’s “necessary” to give a little of our freedoms in order to be protected from harm, I think of the commonly known quote by Ben Franklin that says, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
A rigidly controlled society IS the safest society, but I will NOT willingly give up my Constitutionally protected freedoms just to make it easier for those people whose jobs are to protect us. FIND ANOTHER WAY!

@jan8022- All of my comments here are about our FISA. The Boston Marathon bombings are outside or that. Much of the problem from what I have read was that these were isolated domestic terrorists who were radicalized here in the US, so PRISM would not catch them since they weren’t communicating electronically with overseas terrorists. That doesn’t mean PRISM is not a good program. Just not for these guys.

Mass surveillance is precisely what we need to find the needle-in-a-haystack. Without it, there is not enough human intelligence to effectively identify the bad guys. Cross agency coordination is good, not perfect. We’re getting better.

@nick- I still don’t understand the point you were trying to make on July 2 at 10:45AM. Could you rephrase it?

@steve- What “Constitutionally protected freedoms” do these cameras take away? No one can expect privacy when they are in a public space. Ask celebrities. And even more important. What is a better way to pinpoint a foreign terrorists when you know one end of the connection?

Unknown Author says, “The only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions, running off at the mouth, side-stepping responsibility, and pushing their luck!”

FIFTY foiled terrorist attacks since 9/11? Hmmm, and where do we get that magical number? From the very departments that are trying to justify the “suspension” of our Constitutional rights. Not an overly believable group—based on their own past record of lies, subterfuge, murder, and outright insane actions.
I’m sure Richard Reid is on that list of successes. But did the agencies in question have ANYTHING to do with his apprehension? Nope, not a thing. Reid, not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, was observed by passengers and flight crew trying to light the fuse on his shoes; and it was those same brave people that took him down and held him until “well-trained intelligence agents” came to take Reid off their hands (and to claim that THEY, through their ever-vigilant actions, prevented another catastrophe from occurring). How many of those fifty “WINS” claimed can actually be attributed to HUMINT efforts?

Well, Settle-Guy, I’m not an expert like you obviously are, but I should think that it just MIGHT be better to get our noses out of other countries business and just pay a tiny bit of attention to what comes INTO the country—like through our basically unsecured shipping ports than to screen every farmer in Podunk, Iowa in the hope of catching a real live terrorist. It hasn’t worked yet, you know. Not once. And, being the 100-watt bulb in a case of 15-watters, I’m sure you’re familiar with the definition of insanity—“Doing the same thing again and again, and being surprised each time when the results stay the same.” It’s the same old government philosophy that says if something is a total failure, you just need to throw MORE money at it.

“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower

@seattleguy - OK, so despite what some administration officials are now saying that if we had PRISM in place before 9/11 we would have known who the terrorists were (I don’t believe that, but some are claiming it to defend NSA), you’re saying it’s only good for uncovering the needle in a haystack type terrorist.

So following that logic, we should spend millions on this program which engages in illegal activity overseen by a secret court that no one can know anything about on the off-chance that we’ll uncover a terrorist?  Sorry but in addition to not wanting my rights abrogated for such a small return on investment, I think we’re barking up the wrong tree.

This is what the enemy wants—to destroy the essence of America—and by comments like yours, they have a willing accomplice.  We need intelligence gathering in place for sure, but not in secret to spy on our own citizens. We need a better policy, better coordination, to work in collaboration with other countries and learn and help each other. 

We need to be vigilant, not vigilantes.  Officials need to listen when citizens come forth.  Localities need to demand better from federal authorities.  We need to be a LOT better at using what we know.  Even the 9/11 commission said that—we don’t need more quantitative analysis—more like we need to develop a culture of awareness at federal, state and community levels.  Can’t do that w/o coordination and communication.

We don’t need more laws, especially ones that come from a secret court.  Soon we’ll have so many, we’ll all be criminals.

Just to clarify .... when I said we need intelligence gathering but not in secret…..I didn’t mean that intelligence gathering shouldn’t be done in secret, just that the policies concerning intelligence gathering shouldn’t be secret.

@jan8022-The policies are not secret. Here are 2 adversarial sources. There are many pro and con:

@steve- Again, I have to ask, “what Constitutional rights” are you saying you lost?

And regarding your comment, “MIGHT be better to get our noses out of other countries business”

We have been spying on other countries for decades. If the President, Congress and the SCOTUS swore on a Bible, we’d stop, I wouldn’t believe them for a second. All advanced nations spy. Without it, we would be far more vulnerable to attack. It would weaken our military for no good reason. That’s a fact.

@jan8022- Here the more recent bill:

The links you reference are both from a website that’s against spying and goes so far as to say that if it all seems like gobbledygook (what the definition of an agent of a foreign government is) it is because only FISA knows and that information is secret.

So I’m a little confused what the adversarial positions are.  A new lawsuit just filed will ask the supreme court to rule that the FBI and NSA have stretched the laws governing intrusion to the point that checks and balances are meaningless.  “It is simply not possible that every phone record collected by a telecommunications firm can be relevant to an authorized investigation.”

It’s wrong, unnecessary and ineffective to have mass surveillance of Americans.  Hopefully, but really, am I crazy to think, that the Roberts court who appoints the FISA court, will agree with me.  Yes I believe I am.

@Steve - love the Eisenhower quote. 

While I agree with you in theory about surveillance cameras, I think it’s different than mass surveillance of communications done on american citizens for no specific reason ordered by a secret court accountable to no one.

Sadly, we live in a dangerous and uncaring world and as much as I don’t want to give up my privacy rights, I recognize that there has to be a balance between my right to privacy and the government’s obligation to protect me from acts of terrorism or acts of aggression.

At least the surveillance cameras help law enforcement catch criminals and indeed were instrumental in catching the Boston bombers.  They have a demonstrated purpose even though they are intrusive.

I guess we all get to decide what the poison of choice is regarding this balance.  But for me, at least its not the type of surveillance dependent too much on interpretation or going into relationships one might have, etc.  Its a picture of a moment in time and is pretty straightforward in its purpose.

But yes to your comment about ports and border security, although since I read that for every border guard assigned to catch illegals coming into the country, only 3 1/2 people are apprehended a year, I’m not too enthusiastic about this form of security.

@jan8022- I didn’t chose a website to support my position. I specifically chose one the opposed my own belief for balance. The fact that they think the government’s programs are illegal or unconstitutional doesn’t matter to me. What matters is what the government thinks. I am progressive about this issue. What Bush unleashed was over the line, but it is a necessary evil and very effective in identifying terrorists and their sympathizers. What’s not to like? Most of those complaining are just haters. They have no real issue with privacy or they would never go online or open an email account or shop online or….well, you get the idea. Personal privacy disappeared with modern electronic technology.

All along the way, Congress, the POTUS and the SCOTUS have authorized the FISA surveillance. I am pretty sure your characterization of the program is unfair: “It’s wrong, unnecessary and ineffective to have mass surveillance of Americans.” Read page 5 of the Act and tell me what bothers you knowing you have no privacy online or on your cell phone:

Since Chief Justice Roberts is the guy who chooses the FISC members, I sincerely doubt he would find fault with it’s rulings. We can’t be sure though, he has changed his stripes on much more important issues.

@seattleguy - Thanks for your responses which are not appearing on this page, but I did ask for emails so I do have them.  I emptied my cache, etc., but nothing appears in my browser after my comment on 7/08 at 10:06 p.m.

At any rate, I wasn’t questioning whether or not the previous links you sent supported or didn’t support your position, just that they were both from the same source and therefore not adversarial. 

I guess the issue is more fundamental in that you stated that what’s important to you isn’t what this organization or that organization thinks, but what the government thinks and that seems to be okay with you.

Well, I’m not so much a hater but a skeptic, and when the government decides that my personal communication is worthy of surveillance despite any probable cause (that’s my objection, read the fourth amendment), just because it decided, I have a problem with that.

And while personal privacy may have stopped with electronic communication, the point is that Macy’s, Walmart, etc., can’t arrest you or throw you in jail.  The government can.  So they should be held to a higher standard.

Additionally, and possibly more importantly, while PRISM may identify terrorists, it hasn’t done much to stop them.  So, having more of what doesn’t work, isn’t going to make it work better. 

Better is better, as in being effective at using the tools you have (intelligence) to achieve the desired result which is STOPPING acts of terrorism, not just amassing large databases of information. 

Unless it isn’t.  That may be the problem.  I’m thinking we’re trying to stop terrorism when maybe it’s just world politics.  That might make sense as we probably didn’t use the Russians intelligence on the Tsarenevs because we suspected the Russian’s motives in sharing it. 

See, as long as you have humans and their biases deciding things, it’s really best to have an adversarial system which opens up the process as much as possible.  I get that some stuff has to be secret, and I’m okay with that, as long as my not knowing it doesn’t affect reasonable expectations of privacy.  When it does, we should have a say in that through our elected officials, not a secret court appointed by an appointee. 

As you say, it isn’t what we think it’s what the government thinks, and last I heard, it was government of, by and for the people, evidence notwithstanding.

P. S.  Once I posted this last comment, everything appeared, so ignore my saying your comments didn’t appear.

@Seattleguy - Oh, and one more thing.  You talk about what abuses have occurred.

How would we really know?  The high degree of classification of these programs can make it difficult or impossible to know if or when abuses occur.

@jan8022- I think I understand your skepticism. You worry about someone abusing the system, but that could happen without PRISM. The government has many tentacles into our lives. Think IRS or your state’s driver’s license bureaucracy or their ability to collect reams of information from your credit card issuer or employers, etc. Do you understand where I’m coming from? I’m not saying we should ignore our privacy. I just don’t think this particular program which is being run by the way, by our top military officers, should be a source of concern as much as the local police from my own experience. I have seen the local police completely mistreat innocent citizens and do unimaginable things. Maybe, I ‘m foolish, but I have a lot of respect for the job our military is doing and this is at the top of the pile.

Trust me when I say, these programs absolutely identify terrorist. The IT tools are perfect for the job. Nothing human comes close. What most complainers don’t realize is that the NSA doesn’t need to go beyond data. They don’t give a rip about content, because they’re doing 6-degress-of-separation-from-Kevin-Bacon when they scan and can immediately tell who the bad guys are from the “known” side of the communication.

If you fear the secrecy of these programs, how do you sleep at night knowing what FaceBook, Chase Bank, and Verizon are doing with much more personal information? Cell towers track your every movement, for God’s sake. You give them complete access just to have an account, a credit card or a telephone. You do know that it has been revealed that these giant corporations give your privacy away to the government for free? They also sell it to other partners for fees? Why are you ONLY focused on that which protects us from another terrorist attack?

One last point. All grand juries are secret. Why is there no push back to them?

@seattleguy - Of course there are a million ways to abuse the system and this is just the latest revelation, which by the way, has stirred up even some members of congress, imagine that.

Of course we have given up our privacy rights over the years for the sake of standardization (computerization).  No one is disputing that.  But mostly we do that for our own convenience, knowing that there is tradeoff of identity theft or some kind of abuse.  But the operative word is KNOWINGLY.  Some may be naive, not think about it, but the information about the risks is available. 

Police are the foot soldiers, if you will of the state, and the arrogance, secrecy and us against them mentality is part and parcel of how I view a lot of the federal government and its policies regarding its citizens.  See how much I love police.

I don’t object to PRISM per se.  I think it’s a tool that should be used wisely, not indiscriminately. I believe you and anyone else who tells me how effective it is at collecting data.  I’m an ex-database manager, I get it.  I don’t think the next step is listening to calls, and even if it is, that’s not the point, it’s not just what they’re doing, is who they’re choosing to do it to.  And I don’t think law-abiding Americans should be targets.

But I’d believe in it more if there was demonstration that it helped.  It might, but without an arsenal of other tools, policies and procedures at the federal, state and local levels, it’s just a data-mining program collecting information on millions of people. 

It’s easy, cheap and SECRET.  We don’t know who’s data is being mined.  Every single piece of data collected by communications companies is directly related to an authorized investigation?  Seems quite unlikely.

That is, of course, unless the motivation isn’t just to find terrorists but to find any number of groups, international or domestic, who may be operating outside the parameters of what the current administration thinks is permissible. 

See, here’s the potential for abuse, that in the name of national security our government could be, and you can’t tell me it isn’t, because YOU DON"T KNOW, IT’S A SECRET, targeting Occupy groups, or abortionists, or Muslims, or who donates to Planned Parenthood, well, I’m sure you get my drift.

And I think it’s a legitimate concern. As do others.  I respect your opinions but “my country, right or wrong” doesn’t invigorate, illuminate or engage one in the democratic process.

Oh, grand juries. I don’t know enough about them to comment, other than I was recently in a pool for one, and have worked in the legal profession.  If you’re going there because they operate outside of the court system, like a secret court like FISA, I think that’s where the similarity ends.  There’s evidence, witnesses and the findings are public.

I haven’t continued to comment on this thread primarily because @Jan8022 has been pretty much accurately expressing my own views on the subject and is expressing those views more elegantly than I could anyway (and besides it’s probably not polite to gang up on SeattleGuy—even if he IS completely off base here).
SeattleGuy, you said, “If you fear the secrecy of these programs, how do you sleep at night knowing what FaceBook, Chase Bank, and Verizon are doing with much more personal information?” The primary difference between these corporations amassing & selling/giving the data to others has one HUGE difference—you can always opt out of those corporate mining operations, but that choice isn’t available from the government. Most of us (except perhaps you) are unwilling participants in this privacy invasion.
As a biologist, I think one of the most insightful experiments I’ve ever witnessed is where you take a frog and drop it into hot water (sorry, PETA). The frog immediately springs out of the pan. But if you put a frog into tepid water and VERY slowly increase the temperature of the water, the frog will stay in the water until it dies.  The experiment serves as a meaningful metaphor for how people will allow significantly negative changes as long as the changes occur over an extended period of time.

@Steve - that’s a pretty eloquent way of describing the insidious way our privacy protections have been oh so slowly allowed to erode.  But to be fair to @seattleguy, I think that’s part of his argument.  We’ve been losing them all along, so what’s the harm in PRISM if the government says its okay and its purpose is to identify terrorists.

Sigh. I’m trying.  But I do appreciate being able to have this exchange and I’m so glad everyone is being respectful while retaining their passion for their positions.

Do chime in…..

clarence swinney

July 10, 2013, 10:45 a.m.

9-11-01 was not a national act of terrorism.
It was ONE MAN. Osama Bin Laden Act of Revenge.
He had said earlier on videotape that he had no problem with America except for military bases in Holy Land.
Then, a videotape had him saying: “I have had nightmares since watching Tall buildings fall from American shellings.  I have since dreamed of watching Tall buildings fall in America.”

He hired the 19 suiciders. We reacted as expected. In Horror.
Then, we sent special force troops to locate and eliminate him.
We gave up the chase,  invaded a destitute, unarmed nation that had nothing to do with 9-11-01.
Why?  Cheney had been overheard telling Rumsfeld the day after inauguration “Prepare to invade Iraq? Cheney and Rumsfeld were surrounded by Imperialistic persons.

The Imperialists created a sad future for us by alienating 1500 Million Muslims.
We now spend more on killing machines than remainder (95%) of people on earth.

AlQaeda is a Worldwide terrorist cabal, clarence. OBL was their inspirational leader. He didn’t “hire 19 suiciders”. Most of them didn’t not even know they were on a suicide mission.

Sure, we have created many enemies over the years by involving ourselves in the problems of other cultures, many in the Middle East. Hopefully, we have learned. I liked Gates quote of MacArthur nails it, ““In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it”

I absolutely agree that Cheney and Bush were pushed by neocons and overreacted when they invaded the wrong country, Iraq, but we didn’t choose the fight with alQaeda. As much as I disagree with the Bush 43 presidency, he had to take the fight to Afghanistan, don’t you think? Are you suggesting we should have just turned the other cheek?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Dragnets: Tracking Censorship and Surveillance

ProPublica investigates the threats to privacy in an era of cellphones, data mining and cyberwar.

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