Privacy advocates are pushing the U.S. Congress to rein in the U.S. National Security Agency's efforts to collect massive amounts of data from U.S. residents, as alleged in recent news reports.
More than 80 organizations have signed a letter calling on Congress to take "take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA's and the FBI's data collection programs."
Recent news reports from the Guardian and the Washington Post say "the U.S. government is extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person's movements and contacts over time," said the letter, part of the new StopWatching.us campaign. "As a result, the contents of communications of people both abroad and in the U.S. can be swept in without any suspicion of crime or association with a terrorist organization."
The U.S. intelligence agencies have been collecting business-record metadata from Verizon, several Internet companies and possibly from other telecom carriers and credit-card companies, according to the recent news reports. The source of the information about the data collection was Edward Snowden, a contractor at the NSA.
The danger of large-scale data collection is that it can come back to haunt U.S. residents years later, said Peter Swire, a law professor and chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium's do not track process. With the data collection described in news reports, government agencies will be able to collect every phone call and every email a person has made, Swire said during a forum on online privacy hosted by the Washington Post.
"If something goes wrong later, his lifetime of contacts ... is now under investigation," Swire said. "If anybody on your text list or phone list screws up, now you're on the suspect list. It's now basically part of your permanent record."
The news reports suggest there's no meaningful oversight of the NSA by Congress, added Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"Everyone's a target, that's what's amazing," he said.
It appears that the NSA's data collection was legal under the Patriot Act, said Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, but Congress needs to push for more transparency about what's being collected and limit the information that can be collected. The NSA is collecting "far too much data," he said.
The U.S. Office of Director of National Intelligence has referred questions about the NSA data collection to the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ declined to comment on the program, instead issuing this statement about Snowden:
"The Department of Justice is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access. Consistent with long-standing department policy and procedure and in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we must decline further comment."
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