Patrick Semansky, Associated Press
Following the Edward Snowden debacle, the National Security Agency (NSA) was forced to admit that it is systematically seizing and storing personal phone data on every single American citizen, without probable cause, without specificity, and without a warrant. The NSA justifies the program by relying on a single 1979 Supreme Court ruling that says that once Americans turn over personal data to a phone company, they lose their claims to privacy.
Ordinary Internet users far outnumbered terror suspects in the NSA surveillance operation, according to The Washington Post.
This discovery, the result of a four-month Washington Post investigation, has reintroduced the NSA scandal into the public eye.
“Nine of 10 (persons the NSA had collected information on)
were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else,” wrote the Post. “Many of them were Americans.”
The NSA has kept records of citizens instead of disposing of the irrelevant personal information, according to the Post.
“The NSA's position is essentially that the bigger the haystack it can gather, the more needles it can find,” wrote Eugene Robinson of Newsday. “But given the ever-increasing volume of electronic communications around the world, what sense does it make for the NSA to clutter its data banks with information about people — foreign and domestic — who pose no threat?”
There are real threats that our country should be investigating, according to Robinson, and the NSA is wasting resources by collecting data on civilians. “Investigate (the dangerous) stuff, NSA,” he wrote. “Stop wasting time and effort on people who mean us no harm.”
Having innocent civilian’s information is an obvious side effect of the search, according to Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare.
“Of course incidental collection involving non-targets will outnumber collection against targets—by a lot,” he wrote. “The simple reason is that a single target communicates with a great many people
Intelligence collection is all about sweeping in information broadly and then winnowing it down and finding the important facts.”
While the invasion of privacy is a serious concern, the expose by the Post has illuminated another problem, according to The Atlantic.
“The NSA collects and stores the full content of extremely sensitive photographs, emails, chat transcripts, and other documents belong(sic) to Americans, itself a violation of the Constitution,” wrote Conor Friedersdorf. “But even if you disagree that it's illegal, there's no disputing the fact that the NSA has been proven incapable of safeguarding that data. There is not the chance the data could leak at sometime in the future. It has already been taken and given to reporters.”
The innocent people whose information has already been unconstitutionally collected by the NSA have not been protected, Fridersdorf concluded.
Others disagree. Wittes said that by assisting the Post, NSA leaker Edward Snowden violated American privacy rights that he claimed to protect.
“Yes, the Post has kept personal identifying details from the public, and that is laudable,” wrote Wittes. “But Snowden did not keep personal identifying details from the Post. He basically outed thousands of people — innocent and not — and left them to the tender mercies of journalists. This is itself a huge civil liberties violation.”
Snowden carries more of the blame for the leak than the NSA, others have said.
comments on this story
“Is it chilling that the Washington Post now has these intercepts? Yes. Does it represent a huge failure by the NSA? Debatable,” wrote Marc Ambinder of The Week. “The person who obtained them originally, Edward Snowden, spent more than a year, with very high clearances, trying to figure out how to steal them without triggering alarms. To say that they weren't protected by the NSA is to blame your grandmother for keeping her purse in a simple combination lock safe the kitchen, and not the thief who broke in to the house to steal it.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2