It seems like not a week goes by without yet another report on the NSA’s digital intelligence gathering activities. Most recently, President Obama had what was likely an uncomfortable conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about whether the NSA was monitoring her cell phone conversations. The President assured Merkel that the United States is not currently, nor would it in the future, monitor her calls. Curiously, however, he did not elaborate on whether the NSA had done so in the past.
Regardless, spying on foreigners is the NSA’s reason for being. If they were indeed monitoring Merkel’s phone calls, while a somewhat embarrassing revelation with regard to foreign relations, the NSA was nevertheless doing its job. Collecting foreign intelligence is within the NSA’s mandate, but when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden broke ranks and released troves of highly classified documents on the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence gathering activities, it set off a firestorm of public backlash. Some intelligence gathering activities appeared to tread on the Fourth Amendment; that is, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure, or more generally, the expectation of privacy.
The NSA’s intelligence gathering activities are broad and complex and are not easily summarized in superficial media reports (though many have tried). Understanding what the NSA is up to – and how that impacts the potential conflict between security and privacy – deserves a robust and nuanced public discussion. Here are two articles in a series I wrote for Defense Media Network about the NSA’s PRISM program and the legal justification for its foreign and domestic activities. Despite claims to the contrary, the NSA has not built an Orwellian Big Brother apparatus, but the agency’s activities do raise challenging questions about just how much privacy Americans are willing to sacrifice in the name of security and counterterrorism.
Part 1: Intelligence in the Digital Age – The NSA PRISM Program
The NSA gathers billions of data points on online activities across the world. Given the vastness of these operations – functioning under the agency’s PRISM Program – some online communications from American citizens not related to terrorism have ended up in the NSA’s databanks, which is technically a breach of the Fourth Amendment. How does this program function and how do these breaches occur?
Part 2: Intelligence in the Digital Age: Authorizing NSA Espionage
While there has been widespread outcry against the NSA’s intelligence gathering, the agency is in most cases supported by solid legal underpinnings. Yet, the NSA’s domestic and foreign intelligence gathering has operated under changing legal justifications since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Does the American public have a say in any of these laws?