NSA accused of tracking wide range of phone conversations, Internet connections

Here and Now

Aerial view of the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. (Photo from nsa.gov.)

The National Security Administration and the FBI are surveilling data tapped directly from nine leading Internet companies, as part of PRISM, a top-secret program for tracking audio, video, photographs, emails, and other documents, reports the Washington Post

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were already knocking down speculation about another report of NSA tracking data, this time a secret collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a court order from a U.S. federal judge instructing Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give customers’ phone records — including records of U.S. citizens communicating with other U.S. citizens — to the National Security Agency (NSA).

The order is marked “top secret” and dated 10 days after the Boston Marathon bombings, but senators say that was merely a coincedence — that the order was actually a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice. And, they say, this seizure doesn't include the actual contents of the calls, merely the "metadata" — like location, duration, and various ID numbers of the individual placing and receiving the call.

Crucially, they say, it doesn't include information on names — though that data could easily be obtained from other public datasets.

PRISM, though, the Post reports, is an entirely different program, utilized by the NSA in "nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports," that seeks to collect profiles, messages, chats, photos, videos and emails from nine large technology companies.

The Verizon data collection, which is believed to happen at other telecom companies as well, is the first time the Obama administration has been revealed to be collecting similar data to the "warrantless-wiretapping" of the Bush administration.

The entire operation is overseen by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — but some have questioned whether it's doing a good enough job of keeping the government in check. According to the Wall Street Journal, "In the most recent report to Congress, the government reported that the court didn't deny any of the 1676 applications by the government to conduct electronic surveillance."

Since the Verizon application is just one of more than a thousand, it is possible that the government is tracking data from many more users said Siobhan Gorman, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

"It is completely legal because a judge is signing off on it," Gorman said. 

Gorman questioned whether these types of data sweeps written into the Patriot Act are still acceptable so long after 9/11, the event the act was originally a response to. 

"These things were OK after 9/11 and in the quote-unquote immediate aftermath and even in the medium-term aftermath," Gorman said. "Are these practices still the kind of things the American public approves of now?"

The White House is defending the practice as “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats,” while not confirming the Guardian report.