Surveillance Legislation: FISA Act and Other Laws

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How was Congress address surveillance and privacy rights? What is the current status of surveillance legislation? Are there rights that you need to be aware of?

Surveillance legislation includes current, former, and proposed laws addressing the issue of government monitoring of private actions. The two relevant pieces of surveillance legislation are the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act.

Surveillance Legislation #1: The Patriot Act

2001’s Patriot Act has a section that allows the government to ask the FISA Court to force third parties to give them information on anything that could be considered “relevant” to terrorism or foreign intelligence. 

The NSA interpreted this to mean they could collect telephone metadata from American telecoms every day forever on the grounds that one day, some of that information might be “relevant.” 

Surveillance Legislation #2: FISA Amendments Act

The NSA also interpreted a section of the FISA Amendments Act aggressively. This section lets the intelligence community target any non-citizen outside the US who might communicate “foreign intelligence information.” People who fit this role according to the NSA include anyone from aid workers to journalists to academics.

NSA and Data Collection

Surveillance legislation, including the FISA Amendments Act, seemingly permits certain data collection by the NSA. The NSA collects data using two main methods: PRISM and upstream collection.

The PRISM program collects data from service providers including photos, emails, web data, and files stored on cloud servers.

For example, PRISM would collect data from Facebook, Paltalk, Skype, YouTube, AOL, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! 

Upstream collection gathers data from Internet infrastructure. Whenever you go on the Internet and try to visit a URL, your request to visit the URL travels to the server where the URL is hosted. Before it gets to the destination server, however, it’ll pass through servers that the NSA has set up in telecommunications buildings as part of a program called TURBULENCE. TURBULENCE has two facets:

TURMOIL creates a copy of your request and evaluates it for “selectors.” Selectors are characteristics that the NSA has deemed suspicious, such as a request’s originating location or its inclusion of specific keywords, phone numbers, or emails. If your request contains a selector, TURMOIL passes the request to TURBINE.

TURBINE detours your request to NSA servers. The NSA servers house malware programs—“exploits”— and when you’re redirected to your URL, you’re also sent an exploit. Exploits give the NSA access to all the data on your computer.

Surveillance Legislation: FISA Act and Other Laws

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  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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