Whistleblowing Scandal: Leaks show US collecting domestic data


NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden

Erick Mancebo

The National Security Agency found itself caught in a modern-day whistleblowing scandal last month as Edward Snowden, a contractor for the organization, leaked sensitive documents to The UK’s The Guardian. The documents, which the Guardian has been releasing in drips, have revealed a number of details about the NSA’s most secret surveillance program, named Prism.

According to the leaks, the NSA’s Prism program is able to access personal data from many of the world’s top Internet companies and aggregates that data into packets for surveillance officials to digest. All in order to determine whether that person is a threat or not. The companies listed as complying in the official documents include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, AOL and Apple.

Since the leaks, the companies have denied any knowledge of the program and said any surveillance or mining of their data has been done without their knowledge. Regardless, Snowden claimed he’s seen the power of Prism when matched up with the nearly infinite data the companies provide, including real-time surveillance—“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” he told the Guardian.

Snowden, a computer surveillance contractor who has worked in an out of the NSA for the past four years, has slowly become the center of the leaks story, with the US government’s pursuit of the leaker driving him to Hong Kong, and now Russia, where he remains after having his US passport revoked.

As the government continues to pursue him under charges of Espionage, Snowden is said to be applying for asylum in a number of countries around the world. That goal, however, seems to be slipping by the day, as Snowden claims the US government, and specifically the Vice President (under orders from President Obama), are putting pressure on suitable asylum countries to deny his requests: “For decades the United States of America has been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum,” Snowden told the Guardian, adding, “Sadly, this right, laid out and voted for by the US in article 14 of the universal declaration of human rights, is now being rejected by the current government of my country.”

Back in Washington, meanwhile, the leaks have backed up some December 2012 concerns about amendments to 1978’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Senators at the time voiced concerns that the surveillance amendments could be easily abused and had no oversight. The recently renewed amendments, named FAA, grant the NSA the authority to collect data, even in bulk, of foreign communications, even if one party to the communications is inside the US.

Up until very recently, officials could only collect data if both parties were outside of the US. Officials said, however, that this proved to be a shortcoming in some cases. If, say, an overseas foreigner was communicating with other foreigners overseas but the government happened to be collecting off a wire in the United States, they would need a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to collect the data. The 2012 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act creates a technical change that reduces the bar to initiating surveillance, allowing the NSA to collect data on communications which include one foreign and one domestic party.

Whether the new leaks will create any challenges to the just-passed amendments remains to be seen, but Snowden, despite his current stateless position, appears content with the results of his leaks and the political heat facing currently Washington. He told the Guardian, “I feel satisfied that this was all worth it. I have no regrets.”