On Dec. 16, while most students were on their 12th cup of coffee amid studying for a stats final — and the lucky few were already in their “Finals are done so I’m not leaving the couch” phase — a major decision came out of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. Federal Judge Richard Leon ruled that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records and other personal information is — most likely — unconstitutional. This ruling marks the first major court decision against the NSA’s controversial data mining collection program that has come to light since the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last summer. With any luck, the ruling by Judge Leon will be the first of many to come.
For those unfamiliar with the agency’s history, after the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act, the NSA was given the authority to collect data “that may be relevant to a terrorist or spy,” as opposed to the previous regulation of collecting data only stemming “directly from or to a terrorist or spy.” While this distinction may seem irrelevant, it greatly expanded the NSA’s jurisdiction and power track virtually every American.
NSA’s scope was again expanded by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments of 2008, which were renewed in 2012. The amendments allow the warrantless collection of communications data where at least one end of the communication is not an American citizen. This information includes the time, duration, number of calls and the phone numbers of the sender and receiver of a particular phone call. However, it does not reveal the two names of the parties involved in the conversation.
For those of you who may not be making international calls, don’t worry; the NSA has its eye on you too. As part of the Snowden leaks, the American people became aware of a secret data collection program known as PRISM, which accumulates information directly from internet servers including those of major companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft. Intelligence gained from these servers includes e-mails, videos, video and voice chat, photos, stored data, IP addresses, file transfer information, social networking details and real-time notifications of target activity such as logins and chat.
The parameters of PRISM’s collection are even more vague than those of the international phone call collection program. Once a target is identified as being a foreigner — a process that has only 51 percent accuracy according to a Washington Post study — any person in contact with that target is now subject to investigation, as is anyone within the inbox or outboxes of these extended targets’ e-mail accounts. In fact, the NSA is allowed to use “three hops” of separation from its original target. This means that if someone identified as being foreign communicates in any form with someone who communicates with someone who communicates with you, the NSA is allowed to collect information from a variety of sources including your phone and e-mail. According to these parameters, a Facebook user with 1,000 “friends” can open an investigation network of 26,699,560 people — a number slightly more than the population of Texas.
Think about how many international students you are Facebook friends with. Think about how many e-mails you have gotten from the University that have also been sent out to thousands of other people. Both of these most likely qualify you to be subject to investigation under the first or second degree of separation as outlined by the NSA. Although the exact amount of data collected by the NSA in a certain time period is both classified and of a nearly inconceivable volume, the Snowden leaks suggest that millions of terabytes are collected in any given month while the records of millions of phone calls are recorded each day.
NSA proponents claim this massive collection of data is helping the United States combat terrorism. During a testimony before Congress, NSA Director General Keith Alexander claimed PRISM has led to the prevention of 54 attacks on the United States and its allies, a claim that immediately caused media and congressional backlash. ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that performs investigative journalism, investigated these 54 “thwarted terrorist plots,” and concluded that only four could actually be accredited for being revealed through NSA data collection efforts. General Alexander later rescinded his claim of 54 attacks and revised the number to “dozens.” Deputy NSA Director John Inglis also conceded that, at most, one plot — which he could not specify — might have been disrupted by the metadata mining program.
The NSA’s data collection program is a massive infringement on our civil liberties. The incredibly loose parameters of these programs are purposefully structured to include virtually every American citizen. Our country was not founded on the idea of “well, I have nothing to hide…” and a democracy cannot function with this type of mentality.
As the debate over the NSA’s data collection program is sure to continue in the coming weeks and months, students must to remain engaged in the political conversation. While combating terrorism both at home and abroad is vital to our country’s security, sacrificing our constitutional rights as American citizens is not the price we should pay.