FAQ: 5 things known and alleged about NSA surveillance

Here's what we know so far

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

4. Google and other tech companies have denied cooperating with the NSA to allow the mass collection of data. "We had not heard of a program called Prism until yesterday," said Google CEO Larry Page and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond in a Friday afternoon blog post. "We have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government -- or any other government -- direct access to our servers."

5. Civil liberties groups have questioned the legality of both programs, as described in news reports. Authority for the phone records-collection program is cited as section 215 of the Patriot Act, the counterterrorism legislation hastily passed by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But section 215 requires that the data collection be related to "an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities," and the Verizon court order requires the telecom to turn over "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."

That mass collection of telephone records "makes a mockery" of the limitations in section 215, said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group. "There's no limit" in the court order, he said.

The authority for the information collection from Internet companies comes from section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which prohibits surveillance agencies from intentionally targeting "any person known at the time of acquisition" to be located in the U.S.

Section 702 allows broad collection of foreign intelligence information through telecom and Internet providers, including content of communications, for up to a year at a time, with the request by the U.S. attorney general and director of national intelligence reviewed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

But NSA analysts use search terms designed to produce surveillance target results that give them "at least 51 percent confidence" that the surveillance target is overseas, according to a story in the Washington Post.

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