It has been one year since Edward Snowden released thousands of documents outlining NSA programs that invade the privacy of millions of Americans. These documents were given to three journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitrus, and Barton Gellman. The group decided that they would release the documents slowly instead of all at once. Some of the programs have not gotten as much coverage as others. My goal here is to give you a quick overview so that you can understand what was released. Snowden said that his goal was to spark a public debate about our privacy rights. I would like to help Snowden by informing people about what the NSA is doing.

Verizon forced to hand over telephone data

This was the first of the NSA leaks. Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist, posted the article in an American newspaper. This release explained that FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court issued a blanket warrant on all Verizon customers. The court order is specifically for the metadata. It is important to understand for this debate the difference between metadata and content. Metadata is the cell phone numbers, duration, and location (for emails it would be who sent it to who and where they were when they sent it). Content is the actual conversation. Some people do not care about metadata, because they do not think that it is reveling, but in most cases it is faster and more efficient to understand a person through the metadata. Stanford University created an android app that would collect metadata and people signed up. This was their conclusion:

“Participants had calls with Alcoholics Anonymous, gun stores, NARAL Pro-Choice, labor unions, divorce lawyers, sexually transmitted disease clinics, a Canadian import pharmacy, strip clubs, and much more,” the researchers write. “This was not a hypothetical parade of horribles. These were simple inferences, about real phone users, that could trivially be made on a large scale.”

NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others

Prism is a program that is used by the NSA to tap into major internet companies systems. A lot of these companies collect your computer history through things that are called cookies. It reveals where you have been and where you go to when you leave. The companies that the NSA are using prism on are: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. These companies have stated that they were not aware of the Prism, but they were not encrypting their data. Encryption is a complicated process, but basically it protects the data that is being transferred in process. Think of it as an envelope that requires a key. These companies were not locking your information, so when the NSA tapped into their system they were able to copy it all. With Prism we are talking about content: What you like on Facebook, Facebook statuses, google emails, Skype calls, etc. This allows the NSA to build a comprehensive profile for all Americans using the internet. Think about everything that you have ever put on those sites including what you thought was a private message such as a medical condition or concerns you might have with a particular government program.

XKeyscore: NSA tool collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet

Edward Snowden claimed that sitting at his desk he could wiretap anyone in the United States without any supervision. The program that NSA analysts use to do this is called, Xkeyscore. By current laws if a government law enforcer would like to wiretap an American citizen they must obtain a warrant from a judge. This means that the law enforcer must be able to provide probable cause for the invasion of privacy. Xkeyscore program by-passes the courts and allows anyone at the NSA to listen in on anyone’s internet traffic. The only requirement is that they fill out a short form that gives one line for justification of the wiretap. According, to another release from the Washington Post was that the NSA internal audit found 2,776 abuses of privacy in one year. These abuses are not considering the 4th amendment; these are abuses that violate just the NSA code of conduct.

NSA Shares American Citizen’s Data with Other Countries

The NSA has a group of countries called the five-eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) that they routinely share data with. As we have just noted above the data that they are sharing is American citizen’s private records (facebook information, email content, phone records, etc.). One of the documents said that these countries receive “unevaluated and unminimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice and Digital Network Intelligence metadata and content”.

What Have We Already Known?

Snowden was recently interviewed by NBC’s Brian Williams. In this interview he said that the NSA has the capability of turning our phones into recording devices. This technique has actually been known as of 2003 court case with John Ardito. The FBI used his cell phone as a listening device. Snowden explained that the only way to insure that this does not happen is to remove the battery.

Also, another concern has been the government is listening in on our phone calls (content). This was actually first revealed during the Bush administration when there was another NSA leak by Thomas Tamm. Tamm was the attorney for United States Department of Justice Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. He leaked in 2005 that the NSA was eavesdropping on American phone calls without warrants. According to the documents released by Snowden the amount of phone calls that are listened in on has grown since Tamm’s original leak.


Now it is time for you to decide whether you think that these revelations of what the NSA is doing are wrong. Is it okay for them to review your metadata or content? Is it okay for them to analyze your Facebook profile? Is it okay for the NSA to look through your emails? If you are okay with these actions know that there are consequences. With great power comes the opportunity of great abuse. The Snowden documents also showed that these powers have already been used for political gain. How much more abuse are you willing to allow? I will leave you with a quote from Glenn Greenwald, “We shouldn’t have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance”.

Michael Esch

Suggested Resources

Glenn Greenwald’s newest book “No Place to Hide

PBS documentary: United States of Secrets