At the end of the year, Congress will have the opportunity to rein in America’s bloated surveillance state as one of the broadest monitoring legislation ever adopted by Congress will have expired.
Citizens’ phone calls, texts, emails, social media messaging, and online activity can be monitored without a warrant under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The government says it is hunting for foreign intelligence “targets.” Journalists, academics, scientists, and businesses are all excellent examples. The government casts a wide net on the communications of regular Americans, violating our constitutional rights.
Under Section 702, the government engages in at least two types of monitoring:
In a program called “PRISM,” US digital and social media giants like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft provide the NSA access to their users’ communications data, including their international texts, emails, and internet calls. The government first determines which accounts belong to non-U.S. persons it desires to monitor and then requires the corporation to reveal all data and communications related to those accounts, including those between U.S. persons.
In conjunction with ISPs like AT&T and Verizon, the NSA intercepts and copies U.S. citizens’ outbound international internet traffic as it enters and leaves the country (upstream). To find its hundreds of thousands of foreign targets, the NSA conducts extensive keyword searches for information like email addresses and phone numbers. NSA databases store communications confirmed to be to or from particular targets and any touches that happen to be transmitted alongside them.
While the NSA cannot specifically target American citizens under Section 702, massive amounts of our communications are reviewed and accumulated in government databases because of our contact with people in other countries. This is the trap: For “foreign intelligence” reasons, the law permits surveillance of foreigners abroad. Yet, the FBI routinely searches these databases to discover and study the communications of specific Americans for use in domestic investigations.
The scope of Section 702 has grown considerably over time, trapping a rising number of unsuspecting Individuals.
In addition to revising Section 702, Congress should pass more robust measures to protect Americans from mass monitoring and to increase judicial oversight of government snooping for intelligence reasons.
In the coming year, the ACLU will use this opportunity to urge lawmakers to restore our privacy protections.