Last week, Republicans and Democrats in Congress joined President Barack Obama in congratulating themselves for taming the National Security Agency’s voracious appetite for spying. By permitting one section of the Patriot Act to expire and by replacing it with the USA Freedom Act, the federal government is taking credit for taming beasts of its own creation.
In reality, nothing substantial has changed.
Under the Patriot Act, the NSA had access to and possessed digital versions of the content of all telephone conversations, emails and text messages sent between and among all people in America since 2009. Under the USA Freedom Act, it has the same. The USA Freedom Act changes slightly the mechanisms for acquiring this bulk data, but it does not change the amount or nature of the data the NSA acquires.
Under the Patriot Act, the NSA installed its computers in every main switching station of every telecom carrier and Internet service provider in the U.S. It did this by getting Congress to immunize the carriers and providers from liability for permitting the feds to snoop on their customers and by getting the Department of Justice to prosecute the only CEO of a carrier who had the courage to send the feds packing.
In order to operate its computers at these facilities, the NSA placed its own computer analysts physically at those computers 24/7. It then went to the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and asked for search warrants directing the telecoms and Internet service providers to make available to it all the identifying metadata – the times, locations, durations, email addresses used and telephone numbers used – for all callers and email users in a given ZIP code or area code or on a customer list.
The first document revealed by Edward Snowden two years ago was a FISA court search warrant