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NEWS & FEATURES

FAQ about the NSA's surveillance programs

Wondering what, exactly, the NSA is collecting and why people are so concerned about it? Here are some straightforward answers to frequently asked questions

Photo: via Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF.org, License: N/A

via Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF.org


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 number 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. All together, 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 is stored in massive databases in case it is useful in the future.

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