United States Government Surveillance Programs – Part II

The governments of many countries have initiated surveillance programs to protect national security. These programs were allegedly designed and instigated to fight against terrorism and other criminal activities. For example, the British Government has setup a similar program to the United States government’s PRISM  program which is called TEMPORA. The GCHQ, which stands for Government Communications Headquarters, is the British government’s spy agency that operates similar to the United States National Security Agency (“NSA”). There is information that confirms the GCHQ has placed data interceptors on fiber optic cables to analyze internet communications. There is also information that confirms approximately 10 gigabits of data per second (or 21 petabytes of data per day) is being reviewed per day by this spy agency. Its agents are charged with the task of storing all sorts of information – e.g., electronic information with correlating metadata – on computer servers for as long as thirty days. This spy agency uses a technique called Massive Volume Reduction (“MVR”) to conduct its analysis.

Government spy agencies share their intelligence with other nation’s agencies as part of a partnership program. In fact, several years ago, The Guardian publicized this massive information gathering after it was reported by Edward Snowden. It seems the GCHQ is operating under two principles: (1) Mastering the Internet; and (2) Global Telecoms Exploitation. These surveillance programs are meant to gather as much information as possible for evaluation and assessment. However, it seems these principles have not been opened up for public debate and are being carried out without warrants.

The government spy agencies are gathering phone records, email message content, social media communications, and other types of information in an effort to curtail criminal violations. Their targets may include the unsuspecting innocent and suspicious or guilty individuals. Therefore, there are two schools of thought here. First, the spy agencies should carry out their intelligence gathering to prevent another international tragedy such as 9/11. Second, the spy agencies should be subject to certain limitations and should be forced to obtain lawful warrants before conducting surveillance. On the other side, the government officials argue that this type of unprecedented wiretapping is necessary to properly safeguard the country from terrorists.

In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked information that notified the general public about the government’s massive surveillance programs. These programs included Upstream and PRISM which are meant to collect communication that travels over the internet backbone and downstream surveillance (also known as “PRISM”) is meant to collect communication from major internet search engines, service providers, and social media platforms such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Yahoo.

The government spy agencies conduct regular searches by using keywords and targeted selectors by focusing on domestic and foreign individuals who may possess foreign intelligence information. They can target any suspect (e.g., foreigner) who may have foreign intelligence information that could ultimately help the investigation. They can choose selectors such as email addresses, telephone numbers, or other identifiers to follow their targets. The government intelligence agencies are granted the right to compel internet and communication service providers (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, Google, Facebook) to turn over information. Also, the service providers cannot notify their users about the investigation.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Thus, organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) have argued that this “interception and copying is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and should require a warrant.” It is certainly arguable the government’s spy agencies are engaging in unreasonable searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Nonetheless, there is a counterargument being made that this massive surveillance of internet communications is necessary and proper. The United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (a/k/a “FISA Court”) which consists of eleven federal judges was setup to oversee surveillance requests and determine whether to issue warrants. There has been much debate and controversy as to whether the FISA Court is carrying out its purpose and whether the government should be restricted in its surveillance programs. Be that as it may, we don’t see this debate ending anytime soon and we’ll continue evaluating the legal issues.

Our law firm assists clients in matters related to cybersecurity and the applicable state, federal, and international laws. Please contact our law firm to speak with an internet attorney at your earliest convenience.