The news broke in just the last day or two, about the large tech companies and telecommunications companies reluctantly acceding to government requests for vast amounts of user data. The Boston Globe ran a nice report that summarizes the history of the group of programs involved in the news. It's an even-handed article that quotes from President Obama's comments about the need for balance if we want to catch terrorists while trying to protect civil liberties. It also quotes from Mark Rumold, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticizing the extent of the surveillance programs. (See order from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court requiring Verizon to turn over telephone data acquired by the British Guardian; not clear how they got this since it's marked Top Secret do not declassify until 12 April 2038.)
The Globe article, "What Surveillance Can Uncover About You," (available in print at A1, A7, by Matt Viser, Noah Bierman and Bryan Bender) includes a Surveillance programs fact sheet (A7 in print), that does a very nice job of listing in a general way, what data the government collects under two different programs from the various major players.
From telephone conversations, without a warrant, from U.S. citizens, agencies collect metadata only, not the actual content of the conversations. The metadata reveal information on:
beginning and end times and thus the length of the call;
place of origin of the call, and place of the receiver;
serial number of the phone placing the call;
phone number of the placing and receiving call;
However, there is a second, top-secret data-gathering program, PRISM, by US and British intelligence on which the British Guardian and the Washington Post, published a slide show provided them by the National Security Agency (NSA). The Post edited and annotated their slides, which is what I have linked here. The Post also provides an article about Prism. According to the material appearing at the Guardian and the Post, with the aid of NSA, the British analogous agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has been sieving the same U.S. tech company data as the NSA in the same ways. This has allowed GCHQ to evade the British laws requiring legal process to acquire photographs, e-mails and videos outside of the country. From the Post's article:
PRISM was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority.
Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing data collection beneath the surface of a roiling national debate on surveillance and privacy. Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.
(FISA = Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, P.L. 95-511, 92 Stat 1783, 50 U.S.C. Chapter 36
Protect America Act of 2007 = P.L. 110-55, 121 Stat 552, amending 50 U.S.C. certain sections of Chapter 36
USA PATRIOT ACT = P.L. 107-56, 115 Stat 272, amending MANY U.S.C. sections) The Post includes a separate article with details on how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts work, including statistics on number of requests and number denied during various administrations since the courts were established in 1979.
The Post web link includes in interesting video interview with the reporter who has done most of the work uncovering PRISM here in the U.S. Besides stressing that the tech companies involved have all denied any knowledge of PRISM, and that the government has said that PRISM only applies to non-citizens, there are several fascinating parts to the conversation. One is asking the reporter whether he is concerned about repercussions such as those suffered by the Fox News and AP reporters recently who had materials subpoenaed. The second is asking about his contact within the NSA and whether this whistle blower is prepared for what will happen when or if he is unmasked. And thirdly, the interviewer mentions receiving an e-mail that simply says "tip of the iceberg." The conversation goes from there about the size of the data sets available and how unimaginable this was to them before the story broke.
Two organizations which have long been critical of the government's data gathering:
Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has helpful information, explanations and white papers on their website.
Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
which also has helpful information, explanations, and links to legal documents on their website. They have explanatory notes, pleadings, rulings, memoranda and briefs in a number of relevant court cases that are still working their way through appeals. Very helpful.
The American Civil Liberties Union has some links and posts about this issue, but it is one small issue among many for them.
Only a few members of Congress have opposed the relentless expansion of the Executive's power of surveillance. They have been lonely voices until now.
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