Domestic spying: What you need to know

2013-06-09T00:00:00Z 2013-06-09T14:43:58Z Domestic spying: What you need to knowThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

WASHINGTON - Wait, there's more?

Yes, last week was when America's intelligence secrets spilled out: Classified court orders. Top secret Power Point slides. Something called PRISM.

Here's what you need to know.

Q: The past two days have been packed with coverage about domestic surveillance. I have no idea what I'm hearing.

A: That's not a question. So let's start from the beginning, which in the national security world these days means going back to 9/11.

Shortly after the attacks, Congress hastily approved the USA Patriot Act. That gave the government wide new powers to collect information on Americans. In the first few years, news coverage focused on how the FBI would use these new powers to seize phone, bank and library records.

Separate from the Patriot Act, though, President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct a highly classified wiretapping program. Normally, the government needs a warrant to spy on Americans, but Bush allowed the NSA to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, read their emails and collect their phone records - all without warrants.

In 2005, The New York Times revealed the existence of that program. Amid the furor, the rules changed. The wiretapping operation and the collection of phone records could continue, but a judge had to sign off on them.

The scope of those programs wasn't fully known. But the government assured people that the spying was narrow and kept them safe. Congress voted to continue the authority.

Then last week, The Guardian newspaper published a classified court document from April that authorized the government to seize all of Verizon's phone records on a daily basis - an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day. The government didn't eavesdrop on anyone (under this court order, at least), but it received all outgoing and incoming numbers for every call, plus the unique electronic fingerprints that identify cellphones.

A program that the government said was narrow was suddenly revealed as vast. Under Bush and then President Obama, the National Security Agency had built a colossal database of American phone calls.

Q: That's a lot to digest. Is that it?

A: No. A day after the court document surfaced, the Guardian and The Washington Post published stories and secret Power Point slides revealing another classified spying program. Unlike the effort to collect phone records, this one hadn't even been hinted about publicly.

This program, code-named PRISM, allowed the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL.

Like the phone-records program, PRISM was approved by a judge in a secret court order. Unlike that program, however, PRISM allowed the government to seize actual conversations: emails, video chats, instant messages and more.

Q: How does that work?

A: You're going to hear a lot about PRISM and, when you do it's important to remember two things:

First, it's no less than astonishing that reporters obtained such highly classified, detailed documents about an ongoing intelligence-gathering program.

Second, for all the incredible details, we still know relatively little about the program. The slides appear to be from an internal NSA presentation explaining the value of PRISM to analysts. So they don't get very technical and they leave a lot unanswered.

Imagine someone trying to understand the way a company works using only the slides from the most recent staff meeting. That's what this is.

From the documents, it's clear that the NSA receives data directly from the Internet companies. The information varies by company but includes emails, your social networking activity, the files you receive, even family photos.

Q: What do they do with that information?

A: It's not clear from the documents but, as with phone records, the NSA appears to be building a database of much of the Internet traffic.

The companies participating in PRISM produce enormous amounts of data every day, so storing it would require computing power the likes of which the public has never seen. People who study technology and security believe that's why the NSA has been building a million-square-foot data center near Salt Lake City.

Q: Does this apply to Americans?

A: Yes, definitely.

Q: But Obama said Friday that Americans are not targeted by this program.

A: That's also, true. It all comes down to the word "targeted." Here's why.

The agency can't target Americans. But targeting is different from collecting. PRISM dumps massive amounts of data from users all over the world into the NSA's computers, and much of that comes from the accounts of American citizens.

All this information lives on NSA computer servers. At this point, the government has your information but can still say it hasn't targeted you. Basically, PRISM might have all your emails but, until someone reads them, you haven't been targeted.

NSA analysts are supposed to focus only on non-U.S. citizens outside the United States. According to the Post, though, "incidental" collection of Americans' data is common, even at the targeting stage.

Let's say analysts are looking at a suspected terrorist. They pull his emails and all his Facebook friends. Then they take all those people and pull their data, too.

According to NSA training materials obtained by the Post, analysts are required to report to their superiors whenever this results in collection of U.S. content, but, the training materials say, "it's nothing to worry about."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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