Journalism in the Public Interest

The Best Stories on the Government’s Growing Surveillance

For background on the National Security Agency’s collection of phone and web records, here’s the best reporting on what else the government has been tracking. 


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On Wednesday, the Guardian published documents revealing the government has been collecting months’ worth of telephone “metadata” on millions of Verizon customers. The Washington Post and the Guardian followed with news that both the National Security Agency and the FBI have been pulling Americans’ data from major web companies like Facebook and Google. 

Since 9/11, the government has been collecting enormous amounts of information on citizens. But most of the data grabbing is done in secret. What do we know about what the government knows? Here’s our reading guide to the government's growing surveillance.

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts, New York Times, December 2005

In 2005, the New York Times broke the story of warrantless wiretapping under President George W. Bush. The National Security Agency previously listened in on calls in which both parties were abroad, but monitoring expanded under Bush to include U.S. calls and emails made to overseas contacts. Officials said it was an attempt to track “dirty numbers” that were linked to al Qaida.

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls, USA Today, May 2006

Yesterday’s Guardian report isn’t the first we’ve heard of the government collecting Americans’ phone records. In 2006, USA Today revealed that the Bush administration was collecting call records of Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth customers without going through the courts.

Top Secret America, Washington Post, July 2010

As the U.S. counterterrorism system grew to encompass thousands of government agencies and private contractors, it became “an enterprise so massive that nobody in government has a full understanding of it.” The Washington Post reported the NSA was collecting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other communications every day, “overwhelming the system's ability to analyze and use it.”

The Secret Sharer: Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?, New Yorker, May 2011

Obama promised to increase transparency, but he’s pursued more leak investigations than any other U.S. president. Former NSA executive Thomas Drake faced charges under the Espionage Act for leaking documents on the agency’s growing surveillance of private citizens (he eventually pled guilty to a much lesser charge.) Drake’s case is a window into the NSA as domestic spying took off.

The Surveillance Catalog, The Wall Street Journal, February 2012

Plenty of governments are spending to spy on their citizens. Documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal reveal what’s in governments’ toolbox. Some software enables governments to translate and analyze voices from massive wiretaps to discern what’s being discussed, or to steal data from “hundreds of thousands” of targets.

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), Wired, March 2012

The “Utah Data Center” may sound like just another office park, but the National Security Agency’s $2-billion project will soon be home to the biggest database of U.S. citizens’ personal information, from private emails to bookstore receipts. When it opens In September 2013, it will also be where codebreakers work to crack into heavily encrypted data.

U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens, The Wall Street Journal, December 2012

The National Counterterrorism Center was once only allowed to store data on citizens if they were terror suspects or related to an ongoing investigation. Not anymore. The Wall Street Journal details the “sea change” in policy under Obama, that lets the center collect and examine information on any U.S. citizen — whether or not they’re suspected of a crime.

For a rundown of what we know — and what we still don't — about surveillance, read "The NSA Black Hole: 5 Basic Things We Don't Know About Government Snooping. Have more questions? Follow @NSAQuestions for updates, and let us know what questions YOU have by tweeting us with #NSAquestions.

I’d like to make one addition that nobody seems to be mentioning, that I think is sort of important:  The NSA is an arm of the military.  As far as I understand the concept, that would appear to mean that we’re under martial law, at least in terms of communications.

That should be more concerning than it apparently is, judging by the general reaction.

Also, let’s be clear.  “Metadata” is data describing other data.  To a phone company, that means everything about your phone usage except the audio from the calls, including at least identities and locations of both parties, the time and duration of the call.  If they take transcripts or perform stress analysis on the audio (a decent approximation of whether someone’s lying), that would also qualify, though I don’t know if any company has that capability.

In most cases, metadata is far more interesting than the data itself.

I am curious about the FISA court work load…

Reading through the stories I get the impression there are maybe 11 federal judges involved, but whether they are full time or part time isn’t clear to me.

I read that the court approved something like 1700 “National Security Letters” last year, and (another?) 1800 warrants.

Which unless I am really off the mark makes for 3500 separate items on the court docket. If all the judges share equally, than each FISA judge must examine over 300 warrants each year.

Can a judge (or anyone)  really read, understand, and critically examine 300 different warrants? Since the proposed culprit is not allowed representation to discuss the matter with the judge, the judge essentially must represent the to-be-spied-upon citizen. That seems like a time consuming task.

Of course the judge might just trust the NSA FBI guys and okay everthing put before him or her…


Obama is a rotten fraud. He’s just as bad as Bush.

Greg Schwartz

June 7, 2013, 4:55 p.m.

See also my 2008 story on the NSA data-mining center in San Antonio:

The NSA’s new data-mining facility is one component of a growing local surveillance industry- 12/3/08

The real story is not the actual collection of the data. While suspiciously broad and collected without any indication of individualized suspicion, metadata has not historically been protected by the 4th Amendments warrant and probable cause requirement. The real story is the governments ability to dominate, organize, and find patterns (signatures) in the vast amounts of data heretofore unprotected by the 4th. Query: has that ability reached a critical mass that requires that we now give those discrete bits of info further protection?

With all this spying I feel like I am in Nazi Germany,
or Russia.

Mary Caulfield

June 7, 2013, 5:56 p.m.

Ok. I shouldn’t be as sickened by this as I am. Silly me for believing the tripe they taught me in school.

So, what has scared the government so much they think they need to do this? What is going on out there that they are keeping from us. If we knew, would we all go nuts or something? Would we all buy guns and head for the hills? If they actually need to do this, and somehow when people in the top seat absorb all the secret briefings and change their mind about the need for it, what does that mean?

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 7, 2013, 7:45 p.m.

Well, now it’s offical, the 4th Ammendment has been scratched off the list of our rights, among others.

Once a government gains a power over the population it exists for, it rarely relinquishes that power. Peacefully, anyway.

We currently have so many “scandals” it is hard to keep up with them all. I don’t call them “scandals” I call them crimes against the people.

I would like to see conclusive evidence of ANY terrorist attack that has been twarted by ANY of this encroachment of our liberties! I have seen the times the FBI has “captured” and “stopped” a terrorist attack. More like entrapped and fooled the public. Well, some of the public. I know all reading this don’t truly believe the offical stories.

Most of the times in these situations it is the common citizen that has made a report to a local police agency that has revealed dangerous incidents.

I have been screaming about this since 1997, and no one listened,,, well now you are listening,,, welcome to my world…ha ha

WITH ALL THE DATA, they’ve been scouring and gathering, someone please tell me why the govt didn’t find the Massachusette’s bombers prior to their heinous acts?
It seems to me that acts of surveillance on Americans is the whole of the scrutiny of THE NSA/CIA/FBI.Because when someone reports actual state and federal crimes committed by rogues govt employees in the govt or businesses connected to the govt such as hospitals like kaiser.. maybe just a few actually get found out like Stuart Lichter ( a former fed GSA employee who built a movie theater and a kaiser medical complex on the most toxic land ever in Downey CA or many parts of OHIO & CO.). but no one knows where (he) they went. Maybe to a man made Island somewhere that they paid for via stolen tax stolen dollars, all to hide the many crimes constructed by these thieving rogues and their cohorts. It would be an honorable thing for our govt to publically report on the govt rogues and mete out punishment just as is done to regular citizens. That’s what real surveillance will prove!

Not to worry, according to the propaganda spewed daily, James Comey, the upcoming FBI director and neocon of neocons, predictably an Obama appointee of course, saved the constitution with that bullcrap story back during the Bush administration which, unfortunately, some at Propublica have chosen to dutifully, and robotically, repeat as gospel.

FYI:  Comey did, in fact, sign off on that warrantless wiretapping, so kindly cease and desist in repeating that Comey bullcrap story.  Neither Robert Mueller III, nor James Comey, are anything like they are portrayed in Wall Street-financed stories.

Response to dina padilla’s (possibly rhetorical) question:  Because the real purpose has always been, not national security, but financial intelligence foremost, and secondarily, command and control of the populace, such as going after “whistleblowers” or REAL AMERICANS, like Dr. Cate Jenkins at the EPA, John Kiriakou at the CIA, Thomas Drake and three others at the NSA, and a host of other true patriots.

Call me a Smedly Butler veteran, but only the truth will ever suffice!


WOW! How stupid of me! IT IS always about the money, and the hell with us, we’re just the built in ATM’s for the thieves! Whistleblowers, including myself always get the government’s fuzzy end of the lollipop, especially when the govt employs so called whistle blowing law firms to take a case that would expose the historical ripoff (makes the Ponzi scheme look like a back alley mugging) of the American people. Where oh where did your pension, IRA’s, investment, mortgage and health care money go?????. HOW about to the mideast??????

this is my blog,,,  it will tell you what happens to whistleblowers and my story.. enjoy

When the choice is between security and liberty, people will generally choose security.

Unfortunately, they end with neither security nor liberty.

It is good to see American citizens no longer arguing with each other about left & right falsehoods and united in focus. There is no dem-repub duopoly just the party of power. So are we going to take the power back or let the fascists finish their scheme? It has all been one big lie!!

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 9, 2013, 8:45 p.m.

Slim, I’ve been asking people that are always telling me this or that about politics “what difference does it make if it is a right boot or a left boot on your neck”?

If these events being revealed now don’t wake people up, nothing will.

Fight for your privacy! Join EPIC.

Richard, it’s telling, I think, that most accounts of FISA suggest that the number of denied requests is in the single digits.  A job is easy when right and wrong don’t matter and you’re not held accountable for your decisions.

What I want to know is what Washington is going to do when some hacker from a belligerent power or just run of the mill organized crime cracks the database they’ve been collecting.  Even if we believe that the government will forever and ever play fair with their unconstitutional dragnet that they voted themselves, do we think that criminals will abide by the same rules?  Can the government stop them from using the data they acquire?

The funny thing is, if enough people get angry about this, it’s going to revolutionize the economy.  After all, if the government is listening in at the major Internet providers, we can dodge around it by building community mesh networks.  If the government has CALEA-like backdoors into the major service providers, we can run our own services.  If they’re monitoring big banks for strange transactions, we can shift money to where they can’t look.

I’m not saying it’ll happen all at once, or even at all, but this has huge potential to backfire on the elitists and distribute power where it can’t be seized by wannabe robber barons.  And you get rid of them, you get rid of their influence on government, leaving room for the people to get involved again.

Exciting days are ahead, either way.

revolution of the people,  I am ready.  sign me up.

One Voice, here’s probably a decent place to start, IT-wise.

The key word is usually “federation,” which means that multiple servers/providers look like a unified whole.  If we were to re-envision Facebook in such a way, where everybody who wants operates their own fragment of a server, subverting the system requires subverting every group.  (Diaspora is heading down this path, but I don’t think it’s ready for prime time, just yet.)

I find it an amusing direction, considering that’s how ARPA planned out the Internet, with every site managing its own information as a peer.  Why not set the DoD’s best ideas against its worst…?

Someone wrote about going to EPIC, WELL that is Kaiser’s IT. THAT serves the government very well. And not just medical records!

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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