Privacy groups, some lawmakers rip into NSA surveillance

Reports of massive information collection from phone and Internet companies may violate the Constitution, critics say

Privacy groups and some lawmakers are in an uproar after news reports this week that the U.S. National Security Agency is conducting broad surveillance of the nation's residents.

British newspaper the Guardian reported Thursday that the NSA, with authorization from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, has been collecting the phone records of a large number of Verizon customers.

Later that day, the Guardian and the Washington Post reported that the NSA and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation also have access to servers at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other major providers of Internet services, collecting audio, video, email and other content for surveillance. Some of the companies denied that the NSA and FBI have access to their servers.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA is also collecting customer records from AT&T, Sprint Nextel and credit-card companies.

James Clapper, director of national intelligence for President Barack Obama, defended the PRISM program targeting Internet communications. The Guardian and Post articles "contain numerous inaccuracies," Clapper said in a statement.

The program is authorized by Congress and focuses on "the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States," Clapper added. "It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States."

Information collected under the program is "among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," Clapper added. "The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."

Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, also defended NSA's collection of Verizon business records. That information collection is authorized by the surveillance court and by Congress, and a similar program has thwarted a planned terrorist attack in the U.S. in the recent past, Rogers said.

The NSA needs to follow court-approved methods to query the phone records it is collecting, Rogers added. Queries are run on a "fraction of a fraction of a fraction of 1 percent" of the data collected, he said. "They're not data mining," he said. "None of that is happening."

Rogers didn't have an immediate comment on the reports that the NSA and FBI are collecting data from Internet services.

Still, many privacy groups accused the Obama administration and Congress of violating the U.S. Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches of U.S. residents.

-- Statement from Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology: "In the face of this avalanche of frightening revelations about the breadth of the NSA's surveillance programs, one thing is clear: It's time for a reckoning. The American people should not have to play guessing games about whether and how their own government is monitoring them. We need a sustained investigation into how far these programs reach into the private lives of American citizens."

-- Statement from Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, on the phone records collection: "I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans' privacy."

-- Jeffrey Chester, a privacy advocate executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said the "Obama-backed digital snooping plan makes a mockery" of the president's call for a privacy bill of rights for U.S. residents. "It appears neither citizens or U.S. companies have any concrete right to privacy in reality," he said in an email. "Ironically, what the administration is doing resembles the business models of the Internet giants such as Google and Facebook. They give lip service to consumer privacy, but in reality eavesdrop on nearly everything an individual does."

-- Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel for civil rights advocate the Constitution Project, via email: "The disclosure of this program illustrates dramatically that Congress should not have reauthorized the FISA Amendments Act this past December without incorporating any additional safeguards for Americans' civil liberties. It also demonstrates that the administration's interpretations of surveillance laws should not be kept secret -- a practice that prevents any public debate and meaningful oversight of the broad interpretations being applied to surveillance authorities."

-- Statement from Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, on the phone records collection: "I am deeply disturbed by reports that the FISA Court issued an extremely broad order requiring Verizon turn over to the National Security Agency on a daily basis the company's metadata on its customers' calls. Under this secret court order, millions of innocent Americans have been subject to government surveillance. The Fourth Amendment safeguards liberty by protecting against government abuse of power. Overzealous law enforcement, even when well-intended, carries grave risks to Americans' privacy and liberty."

-- Statement from Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, on the phone records collection: "There's a balance to strike between protecting Americans' privacy and protecting our country's national security. I don't think we've struck that balance. I'm concerned about the lack of transparency of these programs. The American public can't be kept in the dark about the basic architecture of the programs designed to protect them."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags Mike LeeCenter for Democracy and TechnologySharon Bradford FranklinU.S. National Security AgencyJeffrey ChesterMike RogersU.S. Federal Bureau of InvestigationAl FrankenConstitution Projectsprint nextelGovernment use of ITCenter for Digital Democracyprivacyat&tVerizon CommunicationsU.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance CourtLeslie HarrisJames Clapperinternetgovernmentsecurity

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