The Guardian and the Washington Post have reported that the National Security Agency, or the NSA, has been spying on millions of Americans and other individuals. The previously secret surveillance programs target people who have contracts with Verizon Wireless (and perhaps other phone service providers) in addition to some users of services provided by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. The following is a list of answers to some questions that most of us have about how this revelation may affect our lives.
Is the NSA spying on me?
If you have a phone contract with Verizon, then the answer is “yes”. The NSA was granted an order by a federal court to collect phone records for every single Verizon customer from April 25, 2013 to July 19, 2013. Even further, according to the Wall Street Journal, the NSA participates in a similar program with Sprint and AT&T. Consequently, if you have a contract with either of those providers, you may be under surveillance as well.
If you use certain services provided by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube or Apple, then the answer is “maybe.” According the Washington Post, the NSA program that collects data from these companies is referred to as PRISM. Under PRISM, the NSA, in concert with the FBI, allegedly taps directly into the servers of participating companies and, in turn, has access to every user’s data. However, the agencies are believed to only select information that they believe is foreign. Even so, the NSA still acquires a great deal of information about Americans which it calls “incidental.” In sum, while you are less likely to be spied on by the NSA under PRISM if you are an American, there is no guarantee that the content from your Facebook, Gmail, Skype or other accounts will not be “incidentally” collected by the government.
What information does the NSA have about me?
If you are a Verizon customer, then nearly everything about your calls except for the actual words you speak are given to the NSA by Verizon. The Guardian reports that “the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.”
If your data has been collected from Facebook, Google, et al., then a variety of your communications, including your words, may be monitored. According to the Washington Post, “audio, video, chat, and file transfers” from Skype users in addition to “Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms” among other content is collected by the NSA
Can the NSA use that information to harm me?
Perhaps. If you are engaged in terrorism, then yes, the NSA and other agencies could potentially use that information to arrest, kill or otherwise harm you. If you are engaged in other, less serious, illegal crimes, then it’s unlikely that the information could be used against you legally as it is not obtained with a proper warrant. If you are a boring, regular person who talks to your mother for an hour every night or spends most of your time searching for information on the latest fashion tips or movies, then there is probably nothing from your Verizon, Google, Facebook or other records that can be used against you.
Whether or not occasional searches or conversations about topics like terrorism or violence could be used as means of requesting even more surveillance on you specifically or as a means of erroneously linking you to illegal activities remains to be seen. There is also, of course, the possibility that your information could be used to frame you or someone else for a crime in an NSA orchestrated conspiracy. Beyond that is the more mundane, and yet more plausible, scenario that the NSA’s records could be released inadvertently and your info along with everyone else’s is made public. However, that is a risk we all take by having cell phones and posting online in the first place.
Are the NSA’s actions legal?
There is no clear answer to this yet. The government has said that its actions are legal. However, the ACLU among other criticshave questioned both the legality and ethics of the surveillance programs.
What have Verizon, Microsoft, et al. said about these surveillance programs?
Verizon released a statement that said, in part, “We have no comment on the accuracy of The Guardian newspaper story or the documents referenced.” Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, PalTalk, AOL and DropBox have released statements on their alleged involvement in PRISM. Each denies participating in the program.
How do I stop the NSA from spying on me?
Because the scope of the NSA’s surveillance programs is not yet fully known or confirmed, there is no definite answer this question other than “stop using everything” which is impractical advice. In the long term, however, pushing elected officials to repeal laws like the Patriot Act that allows such surveillance to take place may be a means of enacting change. Moreover, organizations like the ACLU are already in the process of examining the constitutionality of the government’s actions which may lead to a lawsuit against the NSA and other agencies for their actions. At this point, however, the most immediate thing we can do is simply wait for more information.
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