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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


Civil liberties groups including the EFF and the ACLU dispute the constitutionality of these programs and have filed lawsuits to challenge them.

How long can the NSA keep information on Americans?

The NSA can generally keep intercepted domestic communications for up to five years. It can keep them indefinitely under certain circumstances, such as when the communication contains evidence of a crime or when it's "foreign intelligence information," a broad legal term that includes anything relevant to "the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States." It can also keep encrypted communications indefinitely.

Does the NSA do anything to protect Americans' privacy?

Yes. First, the NSA is only allowed to intercept communications if at least one end of the conversation is outside of the U.S. -- though it doesn't have to distinguish domestic from foreign communication until the "earliest practicable point" which allows the NSA to record bulk information from internet cables and sort it out later. When the NSA discovers that previously intercepted information belongs to an American, it must usually destroy that information. Because this determination cannot always be made by computer, this sometimes happens only after a human analyst has already looked at it.

The NSA also must apply certain safeguards. For example, the NSA must withhold the names of U.S. persons who are not relevant to ongoing investigations when they distribute information -- unless that person's communications contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to a range of national security and foreign intelligence concerns.

Also, analysts must document why they believe someone is outside of the U.S. when they ask for addition information to be collected on that person. An unknown number of these cases are audited internally. If the NSA makes a mistake and discovers that it has targeted someone inside the U.S., it has five days to submit a report to the Department of Justice and other authorities.

What if I'm not an American?

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