NSA’s Spy Programs Given New Lease of Life
US decision-makers have quietly renewed two government spy programs with surprisingly little backlash.
Privacy advocates are dumb stricken by the ease with which US lawmakers renewed two government surveillance programs that provoked panic and outrage just five years ago.
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed to the public the existence of two Government spy programs that are able to collect massive amounts of global communications.
Back then, the story captured quite a few headlines, but this time around lawmakers was able to seamlessly pass the bill that is crucial to the existence of these programs.
The programs in question are the US National Security Agency’s Prism and Upstream programs, both of which are authorized by a law that was set to expire just hours before Congress renewed it with little fuss and with hardly any debate.
Privacy advocates certainly did not give up without a fight, but their efforts were aimed at reforming a limited aspect of the programs, and ultimately yielded little success in Congress.
So, what are Prism and Upstream and how is the NSA using them?
Based on Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), both programs are utilized by the NSA for conducting surveillance from a warrant through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
Both programs are intended to enable the gathering of online communications of people living outside the US, although both of them also “incidentally” capture the communications of Americans when they communicate with targeted foreigners.
This means that in addition to monitoring the communication of the targeted individual, the NSA is also snooping into US citizens’ internet traffic as it cannot separate the relevant bytes of information that contain the communications of intended spy targets.
While Prism collects communications directly from internet services (such as email providers and video chat programs), Upstream intercepts telephone and Internet traffic from the Internet and collects communications while in transit.
The House of Representatives mulled over passing an amendment to the bill that would have asked the FBI to get a warrant to access the NSA’s database of communications collected under Section 702. However, the amendment failed, and both the House and the Senate approved renewal, before passing it on to President Donald for his signature.
It is still unclear whether Trump will sign the bill or not, but chances are he will not want to diminish NSA’s spy powers as the bill requires the FBI to get a warrant to look at US citizen’s data in the NSA’s database if the investigation is not related to national security.
The Government and the NSA are adamant that Prism and Upstream are crucial to preventing elaborate terrorist plots, and it seems that this explanation was good enough to ease the public scrutiny in the US.
The Government’s efforts to silence criticism gained further traction when it declassified documents about the programs, with privacy advocates now largely focusing on the incidental collection of Americans’ data.
It seems that either people are becoming more and more comfortable with the overall nature of the programs, or mass internet surveillance is not controversial in the US anymore.