Government Surveillance 101


By now, the entire world (Americans specifically) has been stunned by the recent revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) is spying on American citizens with the help of large tech corporations. Of coures, when dealing with such a controversial topic, some confusion is bound to arise. So I feel it would be prudent to explain the entire scandal for the public to understand.

Shocking Phone Surveillance

So what exactly is all this about? Well, it started with this publication on The Guardian by noted investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald of a top-secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over records on millions of it’s American customers. The court order, which was issued by FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, is viewable here. Now, the court order calls for the external information of a telephone call (such as the originating & terminating telephone number, the time of the call, the duration of the call, etc) , something known as metadata. So while the NSA wasn’t peeking into the content of the phone call themselves, it’s still compiled a big heap of data. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker summarized it, saying that “The government seems to have a list of all the people that Verizon customers called and who called them; how long they spoke; and, perhaps—depending on how precise the cell-phone-tower information in the metadata is, where they were on a given day.”

What was all this data being used for? As Sen. Dianne Feinstein puts it: “It’s called protecting America“. In other words, counter-terrorism efforts. On paper, the data is used to identity associations and networks of real and potential terrorists and criminals. In practice? We can’t say for sure, which is why people are unsettled and angry.

The Obama administration rushed to justify these actions with the usual talk, insisting that:

Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.

Only the Beginning

It turned that this Verizon leak was just the beginning. The day after The Guardian publication, the Washington Post (having rediscovered their investigative instincts) revealed that it had obtained government documents outlining an undisclosed NSA program called PRISM. The Post published a few of the government slides, some of which have been redacted (this tells us that the rabbit hole goes much deeper).

PRISM, in essence, is a massive partnership between the NSA and major tech companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, etc) in which the former mines the data of the latter for keywords, subjects of interest, and potential persons of interest. In other words, the government is poking around and scanning everyone’s social media posts and emails for keywords that might lead to discovering terrorists or criminal activities. They are collecting a LOOOOOOT of data. Wired has a very good analysis of the entire program.

Naturally, civil rights groups are quite enraged. Some are taking action and turning this anger into political action. Others are still coming to terms with the sheer size of this surveillance state that the NSA has built. Regardless, this scandal has reignited  the freedom vs. security debate. What will come about from this is yet to be determined.

Edward Snowden, the man who leaked this information, hoped that this outrage would cause a reassessment of current policies. And to a certain degree, it has. Here’s hoping that it will continue to change.


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