Big Brother?

NSA Surveillance Program Explained: Here’s Why We’re Freaking Out

Caitlin Dickson on how far it’s gone, who’s involved—and how Obama just defended it at a press conference.


This week, The Guardian informed us of a top-secret government order, approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requiring that Verizon hand over millions of Americans’ phone records to the National Security Agency. People started freaking out. Then The Washington Post reported that not only has the government been keeping an eye on whom we call, when, and how long we talk to them, but it’s also been tapping into the servers of nine major U.S. Internet companies and collecting emails, photos, videos, documents, and other user activities. Then people really freaked out. All this freaking out is making it hard to decipher what, exactly, is happening and what it means. So let’s take a deep breath and break down what we know so far.

Since when has the government been collecting phone records?

On April 25, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved a top-secret order requested by the National Security Agency. The order requires Verizon, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the country, to hand over records of all its customers’ phone calls, both within the U.S. and to other countries, and regardless of whether they’re suspected of wrongdoing, on an “ongoing, daily basis” until July 19.

Is someone listening in on my conversations?

No. The order demands the phone numbers and location data for both parties on a given call, its duration, and the time it was made, but the content of the conversation is not included.

Well, I don’t have Verizon, so I’m fine. Right?

Not necessarily. Verizon is the only company that’s explicitly been implicated so far, but according to a Wall Street Journal report, “people familiar with the NSA’s operations said the initiative also encompasses phone call data from AT&T and Sprint Nextel.”

What about my Internet history?

So that’s the other thing. According to The Washington Post report, the NSA and FBI also have been obtaining photographs, emails, documents, videos, and connection logs directly from the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. This program, also top secret, is code-named PRISM and technically meant for spying on foreign targets. But that doesn’t mean Americans using these U.S.-based Internet servers aren’t exempt from the snooping. According to The Washington Post, the search terms, or “selectors,” used to determine “foreignness” are only 51 percent accurate, so content from the U.S. also may be collected.

Did all these tech companies willingly participate in this PRISM program?

It’s not totally clear. Initially, The Washington Post reported that the nine companies mentioned did “participate knowingly,” but after they all publicly denied having any involvement, the Post has removed that phrase from the article and added a new paragraph suggesting that the companies themselves may not have provided the NSA with direct access to data.

And why, exactly, is the government doing this?

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To protect us, it says. In a press conference Friday, Obama defended the phone collecting, and National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Thursday condemned the leak of the classified order, insisting that it was done out of necessity to preserve national security. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers also said a domestic terror attack was thwarted as a result of the program, though he didn’t offer any other details.

Are other countries involved?

On Friday morning The Daily Beast reported that the U.K.’s security agency GCHQ has been provided access to the same Internet companies’ user content via PRISM since at least June 2010.

What does President Obama have to say about all this?

At a press conference Friday, he defended the order, saying it caused “modest encroachments on privacy” and of the collection of records: “My assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.” He also stressed that no Internet data was collected from U.S. citizens or people living in the United States. Earlier, the administration released talking points clarifying that the NSA order does not allow the government to listen in on phone calls, that this method of collecting intelligence is completely legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and that it has been “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”