NSA surveillance 101: What US intelligence agencies are doing, what they know

Civil Libertarians have long worried that pursuing terrorists via database-driven surveillance could lead to a serious incursion into Americans’ rights. It became clear this month that US intelligence agencies are gathering massive amounts of US telephone calling data and social media data on both foreigners and citizens. Government officials say the programs do not target Americans or “data mine” their private communications. They defend the effort as vital to fighting terrorism. But the American Civil Liberties Union calls it “one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched.”

Here are seven questions and answers about what is known so far.

Cliff Owen/AP
This photo shows the US courthouse in Washington where the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court resides.

Whose phone and Internet communications are being monitored by the government, exactly?

This photograph shows a copy of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon on an 'ongoing, daily basis,' to give the National Security Administration (NSA) information on all landline and mobile telephone calls.

Most, if not all, phone numbers and other data associated with calls carried by major US phone companies – but not the contents of the call itself – are being collected, including those of many Americans, leaked documents indicate. In April, a subsidiary of Verizon was ordered to send to the National Security Agency (NSA) “on an ongoing daily basis” through July the “telephony metadata” or communications logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls,” according to a four-page “top secret” order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court signed by a federal judge. The document was leaked to The Guardian, a London newspaper that received the leaked document, and to The Washington Post.

Under a separate program called PRISM, major chunks of social media data ascribed to foreign users are being shared with the US government by Internet companies, although it’s not clear how much or how tightly circumscribed that collection is.

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