TOPICS > Politics

Mass Collection of Communication Data Speeds Inquiries, Prompts Privacy Debate

June 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
What are the origins of the NSA's surveillance programs, how do intelligence officials use the information and what questions may arise about the cost of privacy? Jeffrey Brown talks with two reporters who have been covering the story, The Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman and Charlie Savage of The New York Times.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on what is known about these programs, we turn to two reporters who’ve been covering this story, Siobhan Gorman of The Wall Street Journal and Charlie Savage of The New York Times.

So, Charlie, tell us first more about the collection of data on the Internet. What do we know about how extensive it is and how it works?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Well, people who pay attention to this world may remember that, in 2008, Congress passed a law called the FISA Amendments Act, which retroactively or going forward legalized a form of the warrantless surveillance that President Bush had been conducting outside of statutory authority.

And an element of that was that surveillance aims at foreigners overseas didn’t need to have individualized warrants, even if that collection was taking place on U.S. soil. You could get a basket surveillance order that would be up — good for up to a year aimed at, say, surveilling suspected al-Qaida targets in Pakistan.

And that would include e-mails to and from those people, even if they were communicating with people inside the United States. And so what PRISM seems to be is the manifestation of that program that’s called “702 orders” in the world — this — this universe, going to Internet companies, at least nine of them, who are participating in the program by, when being presented with these orders and then requests under them, turning over information about e-mails and other electronic traffic that they have about the overseas targets and the people they’re communicating with.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Siobhan, we also learned today that the data collection program on the phone calls, which was — first came out yesterday, goes beyond Verizon.

SIOBHAN GORMAN, The Wall Street Journal: Yes, we were told that it’s the three major carriers, so it’s Verizon, AT&T and Sprint Nextel. They all have the same standing orders from the FISA court, the secret surveillance court.

JEFFREY BROWN: And today you reported on the cataloging of credit card transactions. That was new today. Tell us what you can about that. What do we know?

SIOBHAN GORMAN: Well, my understanding is that it’s — there have basically been a whole host of transactions that have been swept up in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. And this has been sort of an evolution.

And so one of the sets of transactions that has been funneled through these databases is credit card transactions. I do want to be careful. What I was told was, it’s not clear that there are standing orders for credit card transactions, but there are certainly — that data has been incorporated into these database — these database vetting search types of investigations as well, as have lots of different types of information from data brokers, which you can — one can buy. You can buy it for direct marketing purposes.

But, in this case, it’s just being used to collect as much information as possible to balance it against leads and things like that that intelligence officials pick up in the course of their terrorism investigations.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re saying, though, that it’s not clear whether that program continues, whether that’s — whether that’s ongoing.


I mean, it may be the kind of thing that — something that they do periodically for different purposes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Charlie, we heard the president say no one is listening to your calls.

So, flesh this out a bit. Explain what — what is going on in the search for data.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, so he’s referring specifically to the first of these now three major intelligence disclosures over the last three days. And that involved the calling log data that Siobhan was just referring to from Sprint and Verizon and AT&T. What this appears to be doing is assembling a giant library of calls made inside the United States and calls made between the United States and abroad, not the content of those calls, but this number called that number at such and such a date from such and such a location.

And when you have — but all of them. Ordinary people’s calls are being logged in here. But that doesn’t mean that what they’re saying to people is being eavesdropped upon. It appears that this database is being used so that, when they learn that someone is suspicious, they want to quickly see who that person was talking to and who was talking to those people, without having to go back to the phone companies and present individual orders, and that would slow down the process, and/or maybe the phone companies would have disposed of the data after some time for their own business purposes.

However, one question that’s arisen around this program is whether it’s really necessary for the privacy cost that’s incurred, especially now that we all know every time you call someone, now there is apparently going to be a permanent record in the government that you did so. Could the government not just take that extra step of getting those subpoenas when they need them about a specific person in the community of interest surrounding them?

Does this really need to be stored forever for everybody’s phone call records? That will be one of the conversations that’s unfolding in the days to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do — Siobhan, let me start with you on this. What do we know about how the data has been used so far? We have now had several members of Congress, I think, refer to the program actually helping to stop terrorists. Do we know any details? Do we know how all this has been used?

SIOBHAN GORMAN: Well, yes, lawmakers have said that there was at least one significant terrorist plot that was thwarted several years ago. We have still been waiting to get details, which apparently they’re working to try to get declassified, but it sounds like that won’t happen today.

I was told that one of the primary values that intelligence officials see in this program is that it allows you to sort of rule in and rule out different individuals and locations. So, if you get a lead on a particular individual, you can do this so-called link analysis to try to see who they’re connected to, and you can see, well, if this — do they have — is this an overseas person who has some sort of significant connection in the United States? If so, then what other investigative actions can they take?

And what officials have taken pains to describe in recent days is that there are very specific standards that the investigators have to adhere to when they were going through this database. One official who I spoke with yesterday said that a fraction of one percent of the data has actually been viewed in the course of these searches.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Charlie, one more in — just in our last minute here. There’s been talk about when this information — when investigators go to the courts. There’s been talk about how much Congress has been notified about these programs. What can you tell us so far?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, what appears to be clear is that a lot of people in Congress knew about this, were well-briefed about it, and that, notwithstanding some voices like Sen. Wyden in particular and Mark Udall, who have been warning about what this section of the Patriot Act that is underlying this phone record collection, they have been raising alarms about that sort of opaquely for years, their colleagues who knew about this thought it was OK, because they kept reauthorizing the law that this is based upon.

And so President Obama’s defense today is, this is not illegal, all three branches of government are on board for it, the courts are overseeing it, Congress authorized it and oversees it, and so therefore there are no rule of law concerns.

Obviously, civil libertarians might beg to differ on constitutional grounds, but certainly it will be an uphill climb to make that case with three branches of government behind it.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Charlie Savage, Siobhan Gorman, thank you both very much.