The big news for 2013 has been the National Security Agency (NSA) and its domestic surveillance program – which has been in effect since the Bush administration. However, until recently, most of the American public hadn’t heard about it. Like all other major news stories, the media and public chatter will soon move on to other topics, scandals and problems.
When the talk dies down, what should you remember about the NSA? Here are five important points to keep in mind about the NSA and your electronic security.
It’s not Illegal
To the average person, the NSA’s apparently broad, overreaching and unlimited surveillance and data collection efforts seem like they would violate any number of laws protecting the privacy and freedom of U.S. citizens. However, government officials have confirmed that the spying program is legal.
Why? Because of a law enacted in 1978 – and its various amendments since – known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which put forth procedures for the physical and electronic surveillance of information exchanged between "foreign powers" and "agents of foreign powers" – otherwise known as American citizens.
FISA was only supposed to be used to monitor suspected spies or terrorists. However, in 2002, the Bush administration authorized warrantless domestic wiretapping under FISA, and while that power was revoked in 2007, subsequent amendments broadened the application of surveillance to include all electronic communications.
With legality established, civil rights groups continue protest that the NSA’s program is unconstitutional.
Phone companies Have Failed to Challenge the NSA
When the NSA went to major telecommunications companies and demanded cell phone records for all of their current customers, the phone companies…handed it over. The first public instance of this was Verizon, which in June 2013, gave the NSA three months’ worth of call metadata from all of its American customers.
After the Verizon news broke, at least two U.S. senators stated that telecommunications companies had been supplying the government with their customers’ call records for seven years prior to the leak.
Internet Users Aren’t Getting Much Protection or Assurance Against Surveillance
The NSA is collecting vast streams of real-time data and communications through the Internet. By current estimates, they’re copying and storing approximately 1.7 billion emails per day. They’ve even built an electronic storage warehouse in Wyoming to house all this data.
It’s generally believed that the NSA is not reading every single piece of communication that comes through (in fact, that would be impossible). Instead, they’re using analytical software to search for data patterns in keywords, financial transactions and travel records that could point to terrorist activity.
The question is: Could they read your private communications, and what assurances do you have that they won’t? And the unfortunate answers are: Yes they could, and not much.
Some members of Congress are lobbying for greater protection and vigorous oversight of these intelligence programs, in the interests of protecting the civil liberties of Americans. In July 2013, an amendment calling for stricter controls was proposed in Congreess but lost by 12 votes.
It’s not Just Americans
The NSA scandal has been decried around the world – and not just because other countries are interested in protecting our freedoms. In the space of 30 days – from December 2012 to January 2013 – the NSA gathered metadata on 70 million calls originating from France. Some calls were also automatically recorded, triggered by the dialing pf certain French phone numbers. With 70 million calls monitored in 30 days, there is little chance this surveillance was "screened" for terrorist activity.
Another leak reported that for years, the NSA has carried out extensive surveillance and eavesdropping operations in Mexico. The agency performed the majority of this intelligence gathering by hacking the email account of former Mexico president Felipe Calderon, and through it, exploiting a key mail server in the Mexican Presidential network.
Your tax dollars at Work – Building Toys for the NSA
General Keith B. Alexander, the director of the NSA, recently came under fire when news outlets learned that he’d used taxpayer dollars to build an exact, full-sized replica of the bridge from the Starship Enterprise (the main ship in the staple sci-fi franchise, Star Trek). This war room replica, dubbed the "Information Dominance Center" by Alexander, serves as the general’s main center of operations for NSA’s data gathering activities.
For many, this news was the last straw, on top of Alexander admitting that his approach to mining data for national intelligence is to "take it all" like a vacuum cleaner – no exceptions and no privacy for anyone, anywhere.
So, when the NSA fades from the media’s scrutiny, as every national issue does sooner or later, keep these points in mind – because the news might vanish, but the NSA isn’t going anywhere.