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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


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.

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