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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


Phone metadata is also not "anonymous" in any real sense. The NSA already maintains a database of the phone numbers of all Americans for use in determining whether someone is a "U.S. person" (see below), and there are several commercial number-to-name services in any case. Phone records become even more powerful when they are correlated with other types of data, such as social media posts, local police records and credit card purchase information, a process known as intelligence fusion.

Does the NSA need an individualized warrant to listen to my calls or look at my emails?

It's complicated, but not in all cases. Leaked court orders set out the "minimization" procedures that govern what the NSA can do with the domestic information it has intercepted. The NSA is allowed to store this domestic information because of the technical difficulties in separating foreign from domestic communications when large amounts of data are being captured.

These documents show that individual intelligence analysts make the decision to look at previously collected bulk information. The analyst must document why they believe the information belongs to someone who is not a "U.S. person" (roughly, a U.S. citizen or permanent resident) but they do not need to ask anyone's permission before looking at intercepted information or asking for additional information to be collected. If the analyst later discovers that they are looking at the communications of a U.S. person, they must destroy the data.

However, if the intercepted information is "reasonably believed to contain evidence of a crime" then the NSA is allowed to turn it over to federal law enforcement. Unless there are other (still secret) restrictions on how the NSA can use this data this means the police might end up with your private communications without ever having to get approval from a judge, effectively circumventing the whole notion of probable cause.

This is significant because it is not always possible to determine whether someone is a U.S. person before looking at their data. For example, it's not usually possible to tell just from someone's email address, which is why the NSA maintains a database of known U.S. email addresses and phone numbers. If the NSA does not have "specific information" about someone, that person is "presumed to be a non-United States person."

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