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NSA surveillance controversy: Much ado about nothing new?

Taylor Armerding | June 12, 2013
The only thing new about last week's "explosive" stories about telephone and Internet surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA) is that it made official what everybody has known, or should have known, for years.

Indeed, the order to Verizon, first reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian, was simply a reauthorization of an ongoing program, which is required every three months.

Those who opposed it had been dropping not-so-subtle hints about it for years as well. In May 2011, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a debate about reauthorizing Section 215, the section of the Patriot Act that the government says permits untargeted surveillance, "I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: when the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry."

Richard Forno, writing on the blog for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said, "It's a good bet similar orders were issued to the other American telephone and/or Internet providers as well. I'm not surprised at this revelation, mind you: however it's both refreshing —and disturbing — to see official proof come into public view after all these years."

Still, some experts say the news of last week, combined with slippery semi-denials from those involved, take the matter to a new level.

A number of commenters noted that the Internet service providers named said they did not provide the government with "direct" access to their servers. That, of course, doesnt mean the government didnt get it, since the data could be turned over to a contractor, who would then turn it over to the government.

Jody Westby, an attorney and CEO of Global Cyber Risk, who has written several blog posts for Forbes on the matter —the — in an interview called the recent disclosures, "a national crisis that is as serious as Watergate. Our country's leaders have been providing false and deceiving statements to Congress and the American people. They (the NSA) are looking at everything —not just phone calls. We barely know the details."

Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, said one major problem is that the government has understated the reach of the surveillance.

"I think most of the public has believed that the capability existed to look at such data, when necessary for specific individuals or locations," she said, "But that the collection was not a full collection of all data. This changes the implications, because now everyone, in effect, becomes a suspect."

She and others also say that the semantic games being played by government officials are undermining the confidence of the public as well. Clapper, for example, said that the government has no interest in reading the emails of average citizens. But that is not the point. The point is that it is storing them, so it would have the capability to do so if it wished. That is what exposed the Petraeus affair.


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