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Saturday, March 23, 2019

by Jonathan Stray, Special to ProPublica.

There have been a lot of news stories about NSA surveillance programs following the leaks of secret documents by Edward Snowden. But it seems the more we read, the less clear things are. We’ve put together a detailed snapshot of what’s known and what’s been reported where.

What information does the NSA collect and how?

We don’t know all of the different types of information the NSA collects, but several secret collection programs have been revealed:

A record of most calls made in the U.S., including the telephone numbers of the phones making and receiving the call, and how long the call lasted. This information is known as “metadata” and doesn’t include a recording of the actual call (but see below). This program was revealed through a leaked secret court order instructing Verizon to turn over all such information on a daily basis. Other phone companies, including AT&T and Sprint, also reportedly give their records to the NSA on a continual basis. Altogether, this is several billion calls per day.

Email, Facebook posts and instant messages for an unknown number of people, via PRISM, which involves the cooperation of at least nine different technology companies. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others have denied that the NSA has “direct access” to their servers, saying they only release user information in response to a court order. Facebook has revealed that, in the last six months of 2012, they handed over the private data of between 18,000 and 19,000 users to law enforcement of all types — including local police and federal agencies, such as the FBI, Federal Marshals and the NSA.

Massive amounts of raw Internet traffic Much of the world’s Internet traffic passes through the U.S. even when the sender and receiver are both outside the country. A recently revealed presentation slide notes the U.S.’s central role in internet traffic and suggests domestic taps can be used to monitor foreign targets. A whistleblower claimed that he helped install a network tap in an AT&T facility in San Francisco on NSA orders in 2003. The tap sent the entire contents of high-capacity fiber optic cables into a secret room filled with monitoring equipment. An unknown fraction of the intercepted data are stored in massive databases in case it is useful in the future.

Because there is no automatic way to separate domestic from international communications, this program also captures U.S. citizens’ Internet activity, such as emails, social media posts, instant messages, the sites you visit and online purchases you make.

The contents of an unknown number of phone calls The details are sketchy, but there are several reports that the NSA records the audio contents of some phone calls. This reportedly happens “on a much smaller scale” than the programs above, after analysts select specific people as “targets.” There does not seem to be any public information about the collection of text messages, which would be much more practical to collect in bulk because of their smaller size.

The NSA has been prohibited from recording domestic communications since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act but at least two of these programs — phone records collection and Internet cable taps — involve huge volumes of Americans’ data.

Does the NSA record everything about everyone, all the time?

No. The NSA routinely obtains and stores as much as it can of certain types of information, such as the metadata from telephone calls made in the U.S. (but not their content) and some fraction of the massive amount of raw data flowing through major Internet cables. It is also possible for the NSA to collect more detailed information on specific people, such as the actual audio of phone calls and the entire content of email accounts. NSA analysts can submit a request to obtain these types of more detailed information about specific people.

Watching a specific person like this is called “targeting” by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law which authorizes this type of individual surveillance. The NSA is allowed to record the conversations of non-Americans without a specific warrant for each person monitored, if at least one end of the conversation is outside of the U.S. It is also allowed to record the communications of Americans if they are outside the U.S. and the NSA first gets a warrant for each case. It’s not known exactly how many people the NSA is currently targeting.

How the NSA actually gets the data depends on the type of information requested. If the analyst wants someone’s private emails or social media posts, the NSA must request that specific data from companies such as Google and Facebook. For information that is already flowing through Internet cables that the NSA is monitoring, or the audio of phone calls, a targeting request instructs automatic systems to watch for the communications of a specific person and save them.

It’s important to note that the NSA probably has information about you even if you aren’t on this target list. If you have previously communicated with someone who has been targeted, then the NSA already has the content of any emails, instant messages, phone calls, etc. you exchanged with the targeted person. Also, your data is likely in bulk records such as phone metadata and internet traffic recordings. This is what makes these programs “mass surveillance,” as opposed to traditional wiretaps, which are authorized by individual, specific court orders.

What does phone call metadata information reveal, if it doesn’t include the content of the calls?

Even without the content of all your conversations and text messages, so-called “metadata” can reveal a tremendous amount about you. If they have your metadata, the NSA would have a record of your entire address book, or at least every person you’ve called in the last several years. They can guess who you are close to by how often you call someone, and when. By correlating the information from multiple people, they can do sophisticated “network analysis” of communities of many different kinds, personal or professional — or criminal.

Phone company call records reveal where you were at the time that a call was made, because they include the identifier of the radio tower that transmitted the call to you. The government has denied that it collects this information, but former NSA employee Thomas Drake said they do. For a sense of just how powerful location data can be, see this visualization following a German politician everywhere he goes for months, based on his cellphone’s location information.

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25 responses to “FAQ: What You Need To Know About The NSA’s Surveillance Programs”

  1. Sand_Cat says:

    They violated the fourth amendment “at least once”?
    Is that every nanosecond, or just every microsecond?

    • FredAppell says:

      You have heard me say that Snowden is a traitor and so on. I heard what his father said recently and I have to admit that his words changed some of my opinion about the situation. Snowden did break the law but he betrayed the government , not us. Those were wise words from his father and a perspective that I can agree with. I have never had a problem with the NSA in the past, I’ve known about their existence for almost 20 years but I believed their purpose was strictly for spying on non-American entities. Forgive me for being so naive.
      I’m beginning to see how they could be used against all of us for any variety of reasons. It took reading the Fourth Amendment for me to realize how dangerous they could eventually become.

      • WhutHeSaid says:

        Thank you for adding some common sense to this discussion. Careful vigilance regarding the rights of all Americans is not paranoia. This is an extremely important issue.

        • FredAppell says:

          The more I thought about it , the more I realized that my support for the NSA was mostly due to the fact that conservatives and the Tea Party were squawking so loudly about it. I was so blind with partisanship that I opposed anything they are for or against,
          right or wrong and I know that’s childish and dangerous but that’s how I have been approaching all the various issues facing our nation.

          • dadhoover says:

            I think you make great points and your honesty about motive exposes what many of us who voted for Obama face. Regardless of this happening under Obama (our man) or not, THIS SNOOPING IS JUST PLAIN DANGEROUS TO OUR DEMOCRACY ANY WAY WE LOOK AT IT. Even if Obama’s administration wouldn’t intentionally misuse it, they are hardly even close to the number of those who could abuse it and worse yet, we have no assurances now of how badly a future administration could abuse this power over the public. It could easily be used in a way to make Nixon look like just a beginner.

          • FredAppell says:

            Absolute power has to start somewhere. The Nazi’s did it in a very sly way but most times in history it’s seized by violent overthrow. Big business and the media (actually one and the same) also have a role in the failure to alert us before this occurred instead of after the fact when it is too late. As long as everyone was making a profit they looked the other way. I can certainly understand our intelligence agencies gathering the necessary information to keep us safe and for many years I thought that was all they were doing but they’ve destroyed my trust in them. I’m done playing party politics.

          • WhutHeSaid says:

            I empathize with your dilemma. I would have a hard time bringing myself to agree with the vile and despicable Tea Bigots if they said the sky was blue, but we have to overcome such revulsion on important issues. It will be rare enough since the Tea Bigots lie about nearly everything.

            The thing that concerns me more is the tendency for some people with whom I normally agree to take an arrogant stand on this issue and dismiss the concerns of others out of hand. That’s a case of Democrats metaphorically eating their young, and it can lead to a split in the party that gives the slobbering nut-bags an opening they otherwise wouldn’t have.

          • FredAppell says:

            I saw that very thing you described. My positions about Snowden
            went back and forth, at first, I wanted to see him hang but than I had to think about how I would feel if this was happening under a
            republican president. I may detest the Tea Party and yes I do agree with your bigot analogy but this time they may be right.

            For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Snowden did this because of partisanship. I won’t brand him a hero either, it’s too early and there are still too many questions that need answering. To be fair, I’ll hold my judgement for now.

            I wouldn’t worry too much about a split in our party. If we are who we say we are than we have it in us to respect each others opinions. We need to get away from the group think and realize that even the issues that we have a split on is a healthy thing in the end. We talk about being tolerant and embracing variety, it’s
            time we put up or shut up. I’m willing and since you initially pointed it out, I suspect you’re willing too. It’s all in our approach brother.

          • WhutHeSaid says:

            I have a bit of experience in the defense and intelligence area from years ago, and I know that most people there are honest hardworking people who have a conscience, but there are always a few who you just know would run amok if they were allowed — and some that do. Things are always going on that would surprise and shock some people. My experiences gave me a healthy respect for the safeguards that we’ve built into our Constitution.

            I don’t consider Snowden a hero at all. I think that he is more likely a disillusioned young man who didn’t know any better way to handle his situation. But I don’t necessarily consider him a traitor either — I say let a jury decide the issue. I see no evidence yet that he is intentionally trying to destroy the United States — he just appears to really have no place to go at this point and is looking for whatever help he can find.

            I hope you are correct about potential splits in the party. As I’ve told other people, I absolutely detest today’s Republican positions, and my contempt for the vile and despicable Tea Bigots knows no bounds. But this issue is important enough to make me consider voting Republican if the Democrat did not listen to my concerns. It’s one of the very few issues that I would ever say that about, and I hope that arrogant Democrats use their smarts and understand that there are many who share my view on this.

          • FredAppell says:

            I pretty much came to the same conclusion. My initial thought was that he was trying to be a Tea Party hero but I don’t believe that anymore. He must be terrified right now. Can’t say I blame you for changing your vote if it come’s down to it. Their all playing games and we’re the ones losing. I was never really a Democrat, they are closer to the issue’s that are important to me but I’m actually a lot of things so it’s kind of difficult to pin it down exactly. It’s my own brand of politics and there are millions of us.

            Take care.

  2. Dominick Vila says:

    All we need to know about what the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence gathering agencies are doing is the fact that their goal is to protect the United States, and that considering the scope of the threats we face, they have been doing an above average job thus far. We must choose between idealism and reality, with a full understanding of the consequences of such decision, and the sooner we do that the better. If we continue to undermine the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies, and continue to support people like Snowden, whose goal is, ostensibly, to destroy our international credibility and undermine our national security, we might as well prepare for a sequel to 9/11.

    • dadhoover says:



      FRANKLIN SAID “THOSE WHO WOULD GIVE UP THEIR FREEDOMS TO BE KEPT SAFE NEITHER DESERVE THAT FREEDOM NOR TO BE KEPT SAFE” (now look that up to find out if my paraphrase is off on the point he was making)

      • Dominick Vila says:

        I respect Benjamin Franklin, his position on this issue, and the need to preserve our freedoms, but our top priority must be to defend our country and do everything we can to limit the probability of another 9/11. The threat we are facing are not philosophical matters, they are real.
        Make no mistake, if we undermine the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies and another terrorist attack takes place, the same people who are criticizing Obama for enforcing what Republicans put in place will go after him for “allowing” another attack to take place in the USA.

        • dadhoover says:

          My oh my !!!! Do you not read at all ? Our US policies of fighting this fictitious war on terror are the very reasons we’re having terror, did you never read of the CIA warnings years ago against constant inferference and interventions around the world and turning a blind eye to Israeli abuses in the Middle east and the resulting “BLOWBACK TERRORISM”,



          • Dominick Vila says:

            You are preaching to the choir. Much of the anti-American sentiments that prevail throughout the world, not just terrorism, are influenced by our policy of interventionism and the arrogance of our actions.
            I am fully aware of that unfortunate reality, but until our policies change, and until those feelings change, which may take at least a generation to happen, we have no choice but to protect ourselves against retaliatory attacks.
            I, like most of the people that post in this blog, hope our foreign and corporate policies change, but when push comes to shove, this is my country, this is where my family, friends and neighbors live, and regardless of motive, I support any policy designed to keep us safe.

          • dadhoover says:

            Well, maybe we should have everyone at airport checkpoints and before entering public places BEND OVER AND HAVE WHAT STICKS UP IN THE AIR CHECKED BECAUSE THINGS CAN BE HIDDEN UP WHERE THE SUN DON’T SHINE TOO !!! heck !!! lets go whole hog and be sure we’re safe !!!

            What was that you said ? “I support any policy designed to keep us safe”.


          • WhutHeSaid says:

            Sorry, I for one do not support ANY policy designed to keep us safe. In a similar manner to anti-abortion or anti-gay zealots, you seek to force your insecurities on me, but the opposite is not true. I don’t mind one bit if you give the thousands of government employees YOUR personal data.

            I support reasonable infringements on privacy — but only with enforceable protections against abuse. How can we be sure that we are safe from the would-be crackpots in our own government if we don’t even know what they are doing?

            Don’t forget about the Michele Bachmans, Sharon Angles and Allen Wests. You propose that we blindly trust such people without even having a general idea what they’re doing?

            My family and friends live in this country too, fella, and I consider them and their opinions every bit as important as yours.

  3. dadhoover says:

    This from a New York Times article. aside the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act for a moment, and turn to the Constitution.

    The Fourth Amendment obliges the government to demonstrate probable cause before conducting invasive surveillance. There is simply no precedent under the Constitution for the government’s seizing such vast amounts of revealing data on innocent Americans’ communications.

    The government has made a mockery of that protection by relying on select Supreme Court cases, decided before the era of the public Internet and cellphones, to argue that citizens have no expectation of privacy in either phone metadata or in e-mails or other private electronic messages that it stores with third parties.

    This hairsplitting is inimical to privacy and contrary to what at least five justices ruled just last year in a case called United States v. Jones. One of the most conservative justices on the Court, Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote that where even public information about individuals is monitored over the long term, at some point, government crosses a line and must comply with the protections of the Fourth Amendment. That principle is, if anything, even more true for Americans’ sensitive nonpublic information like phone metadata and social networking activity.

    We may never know all the details of the mass surveillance programs, but we know this: The administration has justified them through abuse of language, intentional evasion of statutory protections, secret, unreviewable investigative procedures and constitutional arguments that make a mockery of the government’s professed concern with protecting Americans’ privacy. It’s time to call the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs what they are: criminal.

  4. Bob says:

    It seems to me the fault lies with our elected representatives. They (both Repubs and Demos) created the law allowing or mandating this happen. I think it is also their responsibility to establish guidelines for the activity and monitor the activity. If the guidelines are broken, prosecute those who violate the guidelines. Very simple. But probably not for our representatives when they are trying to blame everyone but themselves.

    • Urbane_Gorilla says:

      Our Congress voted the Patriot Act 1 and 2, thereby legalizing NSA spying under Bush Jr, the NSA Act and funded the NSA’s Utah Data Center. Not only have they been briefed about NSA activities all along, but they have not acted against NSA Chief Clapper’s blatant lies while testifying in front of them. All their outrage against Snowden is simply a matter of cockroaches scurrying into corners when the light comes on.

    • FredAppell says:

      They blame everyone else for their actions because they’re not sorry at all. One perfect example is when some of our most high profile Dems voted for the wars.
      All they did in their own defense was to blame the faulty intelligence. If I made that mistake, I would certainly own it. I would tell people that I was wrong without trying to pass the buck. No excuses, I was wrong and I am culpable.

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