5 things you need to know about government spying

After a flood of new revelations on government snooping, here's what you need to know

Topics: National Security Agency, Spying, Warrantless Wiretapping, FBI, Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Privacy

In the past 36 hours, a veritable flood of information about the government’s massive spying operation on its own citizens has been revealed, from the initial Guardian report to blockbuster revelations in the Washington Post about Internet snooping. Here’s what you need to know to get up to speed:

1. The government collects data on millions of phone calls in the U.S. The National Security Agency and the FBI have access to the “metadata” on every call that passes through Verizon’s systems, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald (formerly of Salon) reported, thanks to authorization from a secret FISA court. It’s important to note that the government cannot listen to or access the content of any of these calls without a separate court order, but merely collects data like call time and length and the phone numbers involved.

2. The government may be collecting info on all calls in the U.S. While Greenwald’s scoop dealt exclusively with Verizon, there’s every reason to believe that the government has similar ongoing deals with the other major telecom providers. As Marc Ambinder wrote, “the document suggests that the U.S. government regularly collects and stores all domestic telephone records.”

3. The government can read your emails too. If the call logs are bad, this may be worse: The Washington Post yesterday exposed a top secret program called PRISM that allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the central servers of nine leading Internet companies, giving government agents acess to emails, photos, videos and more. Microsoft was the first partner, followed by Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple — DropBox is described as “coming soon” in PowerPoint slides obtained by the Post and the Guardian. This goes beyond the call logs in that the government can actually access the data itself. The NSA is only supposed to collect data on foreigners, but the threshold is so low that millions of American citizens are probably swept up too. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the intel officer who leaked the PowerPoint presentation to the Post said.



4. The U.S. can share the data with foreign governments. Per the Post and others, the NSA sometimes shares this data with British intelligence, circumventing laws in the U.K. that prevent that government from snooping on its citizens’ data. Eli Lake reports that the agreement has also recently “been expanded to include Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.”

5. Is this legal? Yes, thanks to the Patriot Act and other War on Terror-era laws. Specifically, controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which — though just 550 words long — “both enlarged the scope of materials that may be sought and lowered the standard for a court to issue an order compelling their production,” as the Congressional Research Service noted. Top senators on the Intelligence Committee from both parties said they were aware of the program and that it is both legal and necessary to national security. When illegal wiretapping under President Bush was uncovered, Congress essentially made it all legal by passing the FISA Amendment Act. PRISM is a direct descendant of that illegal Bush-era program and is continually reauthorized by the FISA court, a secret panel of judges in Washington that are in session 24 hours a day to provide up-to-the-minute approval (or occasional denials) of intelligence gathering operations.

Administration officials have confirmed many of the details in these reports and seem surprised that anyone is shocked by them, as these programs have been in existence for several years and approved by Congress. They say the programs are critical to U.S. national security. President Obama says he looks forward to an important debate on finding a “balance” between security and privacy.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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