Jaw-dropping revelations on the extent of Internet spying by the National Security Agency is having a huge political impact in the U.S., as Americans demand that lawmakers curb the agency's craving for personal data, experts say.
The latest media report to raise public anger came Monday from The Washington Post, which reported that the NSA was collecting contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts worldwide at a rate of more 250 million a year, including millions from Americans. Such revelations, which seem to appear weekly, is bolstering critics' arguments that curbs are needed to protect Americans' privacy.
"The NSA spying story has already had a huge political impact and will likely have more," Jim Harper, director of Information Policy Studies at The Cato Institute, said.
"Congress has switched from giving the NSA a blank check and free pass to asking hard questions, and that will continue for years."
Among the lawmakers pushing for reform in NSA surveillance programs is U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who introduced a bipartisan package of proposals last month.
"There's been support from the left and the right on this issue, which is especially heartening, considering how politically divided Congress is these days," Rainey Reitman, activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.
Wyden, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, supports requiring spy agencies to get a court warrant to gather communications of Americans overseas. Current laws limit that protection only to Americans in the U.S.
Critics claim laws currently on the books are not enough to protect Americans. The NSA acknowledges "incidentally" collecting the contact lists of Americans, The Post reported. While not targeted, the address books were inadvertently collected as part of the massive harvesting of data through secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or friendly intelligence services.
The lists were taken from major service providers, such as Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook and Google, according to the newspaper. The Post based its reporting on interviews with senior intelligence officials and on top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been charged with espionage, but has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
The NSA has said it needs to collect huge amounts of data in order to identify terrorist networks that span the U.S. and foreign countries. The agency has also argued that media leaks make it more difficult to catch people planning attacks on the U.S.
However, Harper contends that reporting from the Snowden documents by The Post, The New York Times and other media organizations "has been careful not to do anything that puts the country at risk."
"The one chance the NSA has had to push back against its critics is to suggest that the leaks undercut the country's security," Harper said.
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