Ever since we found out the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting millions of phone records, it’s easy to slip into to George Orwell’s vision in "1984," with "Big Brother" watching over our every move. Like right now. Is the NSA spying on you? On me? On any of us?
Actually, that isn’t such an easy question to answer. Since 2001 – shortly after the September 11th attacks – the NSA has been running a program called the "President’s Surveillance Program," or simply "The Program."
If it sounds secretive, that’s because it is: "The Program" is technically still classified. However, recent reports from various whistle blowers have brought awareness of this surveillance to the public. And that has people wondering just exactly what the NSA is doing, and what it means for the rest of us. Here we look at some of the answers. (Follow the privacy debate in real time on Twitter. Check out The Online Privacy Debate: Top Twitter Influencers to Follow.)
Is the U.S. Government Spying on People?
The stated purpose of The Program isn’t to find out what you had for breakfast, but to look for patterns that might signal terrorist activity. Using a profile of "typical" terrorist activity built by NSA researchers, the agency is supposed to be searching various communication surveillance records for these red flags that may point to terrorism.
But here’s where things get iffy: The Program gathers data on millions of Americans, most of whom have never been and never will be connected to terrorism in any way. And, it says that it may collect those records and hold them for up to five years. It won’t, however, be able to use that data unless there is a reason, such as a tip. In theory, it’s one that would have to be certified by an attorney general before the NSA could dig into the data. Even so, according to an article by Marc Armbinder for TheWeek, this certification can come after the data has been used, which doesn’t provide much assurance for those who are concerned their data may be mined without cause. (Read more about online privacy in Don’t Look Now But Online Privacy May Be Gone for Good.)
How Is Information Collected?
Nearly all communications, including phone calls, texts, and emails, are handled by the major telecommunication companies’ networks. In 2006, a former AT&T technician revealed the mechanics behind one of several "secret rooms" the NSA has installed in several facilities.
In these rooms, devices called fiber-optic splitters make copies of all the data that passes through them, creating two identical data streams. One stream continues on to the intended recipients, while the other is sent to the NSA.
What Is Being Collected?
What we know for sure is that the NSA collects vast streams of real-time communications that include at least 1.7 billion emails per day. In October 2013, the Washington Post reported that the NSA was collecting a huge volume of email, email lists and buddy lists from instant messaging services. They were getting around American law by intercepting it at foreign access points. However, email address books are a far richer source of data than the telephone data the NSA was already known to be collecting; it often includes not only names and email addresses, but also telephone numbers, home addresses and other personal information.
Is the NSA Reading My Email and Listening to My Phone Calls?
According to whistle blower information, when it comes to phone calls the NSA is only recording metadata. They aren’t receiving the audio for every call, but they are getting data on which numbers are called, what times the calls are made, the duration of calls, and an approximate geographic location from which cell phone calls are placed.
With emails, it’s generally believed that the agency is not reading them all. Instead, they’re data mining, or using analytical software that searches for possible terrorist activity patterns in keywords, financial transactions and travel records.
Should I Be Worried?
On the one hand, it’s easy to say that the average American doesn’t have anything to worry about in terms of the data the NSA is collecting. And yes, it’s highly unlikely that the NSA cares about the everyday secrets of ordinary U.S. citizens.
On the other hand, a Bloomberg investigation did find that a few NSA contractors and employees had deliberately spied on Americans, overstepping the authority of The Program. These incidences have been very few and far between – about one per year over the past decade. It was later found to be cases of personal spying on the employees’ lovers. Even so, it is one strong example of why collecting personal data is problematic: It creates the potential for misuse.
On a more general level, legality of the Program itself and the role of private communication in a free, democratic society is worth thinking about too. If a future administration comes to be led by a less scrupulous president, this mass surveillance could be used as a weapon. For example, it could be used to blackmail members of Congress or provide illicit political intelligence.
So is the NSA spying on you? The answer is maybe. But then again, one of the biggest problems around the NSA debate is the lack of information about what the NSA’s doing, and even what it’s allowed to do. That because much of what the organization does is classified. Looks like someone still has a right to privacy after all.