On Tuesday, President Barack Obama told Jay Leno that the United States doesn't have a "domestic spying program." But former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who recently won asylum in Russia, says otherwise.
Determining what the NSA can do is difficult because many of the facts are classified. Still, reports in the media, especially by The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, have created the impression that the NSA has incredible power when it comes to snooping on U.S. citizens.
How worried should you be about your privacy? Here are some ways the U.S. government may or may not be spying on you.
1. Checking emails and text messages sent abroad
The latest revelation is that the NSA intercepts email and text messages coming in and out of the United States looking for mentions of suspicious foreigners, The New York Times reported.
While the NSA has openly admitted to snooping on direct messages to targeted foreigners, this new allegation indicates that the agency casts a much wider net, encompassing "most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border."
The bottom line, according to the Times: If you send an email to your friend overseas, there is a good chance that NSA computers are temporarily copying it for searches.
2. Paying the British government to do it
Like many U.S. organizations, the NSA outsources some of its work to other countries. In this case, it's Britain, and its main spy agency the GCHQ.
The Guardian reported that the United States has paid the GCHQ £100 million over the last three years "to secure access to and influence over Britain's intelligence gathering programs."
The fact that the GCHQ claims that it made "unique contributions" to the foiling of a car bomb attack in Times Square in 2010 led The Guardian to speculate about "the possibility that GCHQ might have been spying on an American living in the U.S."
3. Using NSA data to prosecute criminal drug charges
The NSA isn't the only agency that wants your data. Reuters reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration has a secret unit called the Special Operations Division, or SOD, that uses information gathered by the NSA to launch criminal drug investigations.
That means wiretaps, intercepted emails and text messages, and phone records collected for national security purposes are being used by the DEA to go after common criminals, according to Reuters. That is bad news for people who want to defend themselves in court:
The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to "recreate" the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant's Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don't know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence — information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses. [Reuters]
4. Going through your phone records
In June, it was revealed that the NSA was collecting millions of Verizon customers' phone records on a daily basis.
The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald reported that court orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) allows the government to gather, store, and analyze massive amounts of metadata — in this case, the telephone numbers involved in each call, as well as the call duration and location.
Greenwald characterized it as the the NSA collecting the phone records of U.S. citizens "indiscriminately and in bulk — regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing."
5. Searching internet servers via PRISM
A series of amateur-looking PowerPoint slides revealed one of the NSA's more comprehensive surveillance programs: PRISM. The Washington Post claimed that it lets the NSA tap "directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets."
Those companies (many of whom denied involvement) are Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple.
"From inside a company's data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all," reports The Washington Post. Government officials told The Week's Marc Ambinder that, instead of a wide dragnet, the program is used to mine for intelligence whenever the NSA gets a tip.
6. Bugging an embassy
Are you a diplomat visiting from Europe? Then you might want to read The Guardian's report on U.S. intelligence agencies allegedly bugging the embassies of the European Union, France, Greece, and Italy in Washington, D.C. The revelations angered foreign politicians so much that it almost delayed talks on a trade pact worth $127 million to the United States.
7. Sorting through online records with XKeyscore
The NSA, according to The Guardian, uses a program called XKeyscore to search "with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals."
Marc Ambinder is quick to note that XKeyscore "is not a thing that DOES collecting; it's a series of user interfaces, backend databases, servers and software that selects certain types of metadata that the NSA has ALREADY collected using other methods."
The main privacy concern, according to The Guardian, is that the NSA can do these searches "without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Why China thinks it could defeat the U.S. in battle
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- What the 'death of the library' means for the future of books
- What you need to know before you support the police in Ferguson
- How Ferguson made conservatives lose faith in the police
- Girls on Film: 5 things that need to happen before Hollywood will ever truly change
- How the West produces jihadi tourists
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
Subscribe to the Week