The National Security Agency dramatically ramped up its surveillance of private citizens' communications during the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.
According to a newly released government report, the agency collected more than 534 million phone calls and text messages in 2017 — three times as many as the previous year's total. Verizon and AT&T were among the companies that complied with the government's requests for that information, as well as email records.
The report also indicated that the NSA is searching its giant database more often than ever before, purportedly in an effort to identify possible terrorist activities. Officials claim they are only keeping track of phone and text contacts, not the actual messages. Such assurances provide little comfort to those who are becoming increasingly alarmed at the steady erosion of privacy rights.
Many believed that Congress would impose meaningful restrictions on the spying practices after intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the surveillance. He smuggled classified computer files out of a secret government facility in 2013.
Snowden gave the records to the Guardian and reporter Glenn Greenwald. They wrote detailed accounts about the scandal, which became the subject of several books and a documentary film. Although millions of Americans expressed outrage, the storage of phone, email and text messages has continued to expand.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is required to issue an annual report on surveillance activities, offered no rationale for the increased spying. Alex Joel, the office's top civil-liberties official, told The New York Times that telecommunications companies are storing more details about their customers and that the technology is evolving. “Based on what we have learned from this data, we expect it will continue to fluctuate from year to year,” he predicted.
Congress approved the USA Freedom Act in 2015, partly in response to Snowden's revelations. The law called for abolishing the bulk collection of phone and text records, which started following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. However, the act allowed the NSA to keep spying on anyone the agency suspected of being linked to foreign terrorists.
The only real change in the rules was that the telecom firms, rather than the government, were to maintain the data. The companies turn over copies of the records when investigators obtain warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. The law mandates that officials prove “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that their suspects are involved with terrorists. However, the court rarely refuses a request for a warrant.
In 2017, the NSA used 31,196 search terms to analyze the records. That was a huge increase from the previous year, when the agency used 22,360 search terms. As a result, many more innocent people could be appearing on the NSA's radar.
The American Civil Liberties Union wasted no time in reacting to the report. The organization declared that the “unconstitutional surveillance of Americans' communications” proves that measures supposedly designed to safeguard privacy rights “are weak and riddled with exceptions.”
The Guardian recently obtained formerly classified government documents that shine light on how the NSA operates. The agency developed “targeting procedures” for determining whose records it would request, as well as “minimization procedures” dictating how agents would analyze the data.
The FISA court approved the protocols, which give the NSA access to U.S. citizens' international communications records. The agency allegedly collects domestic calls and texts as well.
According to the ACLU, the NSA and its supporters in Congress are lying about the surveillance program. The organization pointed to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who recently made the obviously false claim that the NSA “is not listening to Americans' phone calls or monitoring their emails.”
A major flaw in the rules governing the program is that they allow the NSA “to conduct surveillance without probable cause or individualized suspicion,” the ACLU explained on its website. The nonprofit watchdog group noted that the law “permits the government to monitor people who aren't even thought to be doing anything wrong, and to do so without particularized warrants or meaningful review by impartial judges.”
In addition to targeting communications linked to terrorism, officials reportedly are scrutinizing calls and texts concerning the government's intelligence, military and foreign-affairs operations. “The effect is to bring virtually every international communication within the reach of the NSA's surveillance,” the ACLU wrote.
The agency also engages in the “significant and systematic” collection of domestic phone records, the Times reported in 2009. The ACLU demanded that the NSA “purge these communications from its databases.” The organization alleged that because the information the government is allowed to seize “is defined exceedingly broadly,” the NSA “is steadily building a database of Americans' purely domestic calls and emails.”
The message is clear: No private communication is safe from the prying eyes of the government.
Following passage of the FISA Amendment Act in 2008, officials pledged to spy only on foreigners outside the United States. While the NSA insisted it was not targeting American citizens, the files Snowden leaked proved otherwise.
It appears that even under the current administration, and despite Trump’s own notable claims that he and his campaign were “wiretapped” in the lead up to the 2016 election, NSA spying has not been halted in the slightest.