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FAQ: What we know so far about NSA surveillance

Allegations of government snooping have raised more questions than answers

By Grant Gross
June 10, 2013 03:57 PM ET

IDG News Service - Recent news reports alleging broad surveillance efforts by the U.S. National Security Agency seem to have left more questions than answers. Whistleblower Edward Snowden has accused the NSA of collecting massive amounts of data from U.S. residents, but U.S. officials have largely denied his allegations.

Here's what we know so far, from reports in the U.K.'s Guardian, the Washington Post and other media sources, as well as our own reporting:

1. Snowden has accused the NSA of mass collection of data owned by U.S. citizens. The NSA and U.S. intelligence community is "focused on getting intelligence wherever it can, by any means possible," he told the Guardian. The NSA "targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default ... because that's the easiest, most efficient and most valuable way to achieve these ends."

2. It's clear that the NSA is collecting Verizon phone records. The NSA has an ongoing court order allowing it to collect the business records, or metadata, but not the content of phone calls, from Verizon, and perhaps from other telecom carriers and credit-card companies. The Verizon data collection has been confirmed by U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama and Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, although officials have suggested that the news reports aren't entirely accurate.

Obama, Rogers and other officials have defended the collection, saying it's necessary to defend the U.S. against terrorism. Obama called for a public debate on surveillance, although he said the NSA program represents a "modest encroachment" on privacy rights.

3. Snowden, a former CIA employee and an infrastructure analyst at the NSA at defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, has released information about an NSA data collection program, allegedly called Prism, that supposedly taps into the servers at Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and other tech companies.

Details on Prism are fuzzy at best, with news reports relying largely on a classified PowerPoint presentation about the program. The U.S. Office of Director of National Intelligence has denied that Prism is a collection program, saying instead it is an "internal government computer system used to facilitate the government's statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision."

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."

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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