The Government’s Phone, Text, and Email Spying, Explained

How the Obama administration’s surveillance affects you.

ByAdam Weinstein (<a Href="" Target="external">@adamweinstein</a>)
June 07, 2013, 9:46 AM

June 7, 2013&#151; -- Curious what all the fuss has been about the past few days? Want to know if the Obama administration's surveillance of phone calls (and much more) affects you? Here's everything you need to know.

What started all this?

Late Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper reported on a top-secret program ordering Verizon to share daily records of all its customers' phone calls with the US government. The FBI asked a secret US court to grant the order in April, and it covers all of Verizon's phone records through July. (You can read the actual court order here.) One source tells The Washington Post, however, that the Verizon data collection has actually been going on since 2006 , and more phone companies may be involved.

But there's much, much more. After that news broke, The Washington Post reported that in addition to the Verizon call logs, the government also runs a top-secret spy program codenamed PRISM, in which it regularly taps into millions of "audio, video, photographs, e-mails and other documents" of users from many popular internet companies' services, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

The Post cites a top-secret Powerpoint presentation by the National Security Agency (NSA), the department that collects "signals intelligence" for the government, to show when it started collecting data from each of the companies, going back to 2007:

Many of those companies, however, deny that they've given any info about their users to the government, and the US's director of national intelligence, James Clapper, says the Guardian and Post stories misled readers to believe that the surveillance programs were larger and worse than they actually are.

So if I'm a Verizon customer, what can the government see?

The government can't listen in on the content of a conversation, but it collects what's called "metadata" from users' phone calls. That includes the phone numbers of both parties on a call, plus locations of the users and the time and length of all calls. Read on for more info on how this this metadata is useful; The Guardian also has an excellent rundown here on what else is included in that "metadata" category.

Is that really a big deal?

Yes. In fact, the government can potentially learn more about you from this metadata than it can from the actual content of your conversations, according to The New Yorker's Jane Mayer. For example, it can learn about your patterns of life from who you call, when you call them, and where you do it from. Think your medical problems are your own business? The government could easily figure them out from this info. "You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members," a cybersecurity expert told Mayer.

I don't use Verizon. Do I have anything to worry about?

Yes! If the Post's reporting on the PRISM program is accurate, virtually anyone with a Facebook or Gmail account could potentially have their private info read by the NSA.

In addition, under Verizon's order, the company is forbidden from discussing the program. It's possible that there are similar orders for other phone companies, and we simply don't know that they exist because no one's spoken out publicly about them yet.

But what EXACTLY did the government take and what did they do with it?

It's extremely hard to say, because the entire affair is shrouded in secrecy and denials. The Obama administration will only say that the surveillance is routine and limited, and the companies that have been implicated deny they've handed over any private info on their customers.

But some politicians say the info has proven very useful in protecting Americans. "Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that. It's important. It fills in a little seam that we have," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who runs the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters Thursday, adding that the spy program "is a very valuable thing."

One thing is certain: It takes a huge effort to look at that much information from millions of American phone and computer users, much less collect it. US residents make an estimated six billion phone calls a day. The official budget and number of employees at the NSA and other intelligence agencies is classified, but it's estimated to be 100,000, more than the number of soldiers in the entire British Army.

So this is just like what President Bush was doing with wiretaps of phone calls, right?

Not exactly. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush started a still-mysterious National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on phone calls, texts, and emails by U.S. citizens who were communicating with people overseas. But he never sought any warrants or other permissions from the courts or Congress to conduct those wiretaps.

By contrast, the Verizon records only cover phone-call meta data, and the Obama administration got permission from a US court to access those records, which theoretically means that there were some checks and balances placed on the executive branch's Constitutional power to spy on Americans.

Wait -- so is this legal, or what?

Yes, the Verizon program is technically legal. But it's still controversial. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 set up the court that gave Obama FBI permission to seize the phone records. That court employs 11 judges to review the government's sensitive spying plans. However, the FISA court has often been accused of operating as a rubber-stamp for government spies. In 2010, for example, it approved every single request from the government for a spying warrant -- 1,506 warrants in all.

Furthermore, the legal status of the PRISM operation is unclear. The Post's initially reporting stated that the NSA got cooperation from companies like Google and Apple to share information on their customers, which means the government wouldn't have needed a court's permission. But now that those companies deny working with US officials, no one can say for sure right now whether all of that surveillance is legal.

This is outrageous! Why doesn't Congress do something?

It is outrageous to many liberals and conservatives alike, who have expressed their displeasure at the government's ability to secretly gather so much information on US citizens. But it turns out that most members of Congress have known about these programs for a long time.

"This is nothing new. This has been going on for 7 years," Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) told reporters Thursday. "Every member of the US Senate has been advised of this."

In fact, Congress has blown at least four chances since 2001 to put limits on the executive branch's domestic-snooping power, and in 2008 they even gave the government immunity from lawsuits by angry phone users who were targeted for surveillance according to Joshua Foust, a former U.S. military intelligence analyst.

"All of the opprobrium you should feel at the government's ridiculously broad surveillance powers needs to be directed at CONGRESS, which keeps approving them," he wrote Thursday.

What happens next?

It's possible that public outrage could spur changes in how the government blanketly collects info from phone and computer users. But that's not likely. Despite the outrage on Capitol Hill today, members of Congress have spurned virtually every opportunity to protect the privacy of average Americans when national security interests are involved.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a powerful politician who is both a trained military lawyer and a Verizon customer, said Thursday he was happy that the government has such sweeping power to spy on its own citizens. "We are under attack" from Islamic terrorists, he told Fox News. "It is happening in our own backyard, and I am glad that NSA is trying to find out what terrorists are up to overseas and inside the country."

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