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FAQ: What the NSA phone snooping uproar is all about

Jaikumar Vijayan | June 10, 2013
Is the blanket collection of phone data like that exposed this week legal? The government believes so. Here's the lowdown.

What is the authority under which NSA is collecting all this information?
The court that issued the order is a non-public court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was set up specifically to oversee government data access requests filed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA is a controversial wiretapping law that was first passed in 1978 and amended in 2008. FISA was originally designed to give U.S. intelligence agencies a tool for keeping an eye on individuals in foreign countries who were perceived to pose a threat to the U.S. The amended FISA gives broader authority for U.S. agencies to conduct surveillance — including electronic wiretapping — of people inside the U.S and overseas who are believed to pose a security risk to the country. The court order to Verizon was issued under a FISA provision, called Section 215, that lets the government seek "any tangible things" on any person under the context of national security.

Does FISA allow for blanket collection of phone records?
The government apparently thinks so, although privacy and civil rights advocates vehemently disagree. Critics of FISA have long maintained that language in the law gives the government too much leeway to interpret it the way they want. Though FISA supporters have insisted that the law will only be used in targeted fashion, rights advocates have long warned that FISA will end up being used to justify widespread data collection of the sort highlighted by the Guardian story.

 

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