(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
What you don’t know can hurt you, it turns out. In back-to-back revelations this week, Americans learned that their electronic communications are subject to massive monitoring by the National Security Agency, without any individualized basis for suspicion. On Wednesday, The Guardian published a secret court order requiring Verizon Business to turn over to the NSA phone “metadata” regarding all calls between the United States and other countries and all local calls within the United States. The data includes the originating number, the number called and the date, time and duration of the calls. In some instances, it includes the location of the callers. According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, this was a renewal of an order that has been in place for many years, unbeknownst to the American public. And as there is nothing unique about Verizon, it seems virtually certain that similar orders govern all phone service providers. In the wake of the disclosure, the Obama administration sought to deflect criticism, stressing that the order does not require transmission of the content of phone calls. But it is no small matter to know that every time you pick up the phone and call, the NSA knows it.
As if that weren’t disturbing enough, on Thursday The Washington Post reported that the NSA has entered into agreements with nine Internet service providers—including Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, Apple and AOL—to allow the NSA to obtain from them all sorts of private information communicated over their networks. Dropbox, the Post reports, is said to be “coming soon.” According to the Post, the top-secret program, PRISM, allows the FBI and the NSA to extract “audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”
The PRISM program, unlike the NSA phone records program, does not sweep up all data in a vacuum. Rather, it enables government analysts to search the private Internet company’s own data for key terms that are supposed to make it more likely than not that the target is “foreign.” But this requirement of only 51 percent certainty means that much of the information disclosed will inevitably concern Americans. The extent of the information available to the government is extraordinary. The Post reports that, according to a PRISM “User Guide,” Skype “can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of 'audio, video, chat, and file transfers' when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.”