A Glossary of Government Surveillance

  • Share
  • Read Later
NSA / Getty Images

National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

The National Security Agency (NSA) is the United States’ chief coordinator of signals intelligence—the collection and analysis of communication through radio, radar, and electronic means. It serves the Department of Defense, other government agencies, the Intelligence Community, private sector partners, the armed forces and international allies. Little is known about the NSA because of the sensitive nature of its operations, but the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland is home to some of the world’s best cryptographers, computer scientists, engineers and mathematicians. General Keith B. Alexander is the current director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of U.S. Cyber Command. John C. Inglis is the agency’s deputy director.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is an agency of the US Department of Justice with investigative jurisdiction over 200 categories of federal crime. Its primary duties include counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts, cyberwarfare research and defense, the protection of civil rights and the prosecution of violent, organized, and white collar criminal activity. The FBI is headquartered in Washington, DC but maintains hundreds of international field offices. In June 2013, President Barack Obama named James Comey Jr. to succeed Robert Mueller as director of the FBI.

(MORE: TIME’s full coverage on privacy)

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was a United States law passed in 1978 that outlined procedures for the federal conduction of electronic surveillance, physical searches, and the mining of information for foreign intelligence purposes. FISA established the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court), a federal counsel that oversees the granting of surveillance warrants to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The Act also gave the President authority to conduct electronic surveillance without a court order through the Attorney General and the FISA Court. FISA garnered national attention in 2005 after the Bush administration authorized unwarranted wiretapping of US phones by the National Security Agency.

The Protect America Act (PAA) was an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that was championed by President George W. Bush and passed by Congress in 2007. In a controversial maneuver later upheld by the FISA Court, the PAA removed the requirement of a warrant for the federal surveillance of foreign intelligence targets reasonably believed to be outside the country and any Americans communicating with them. It also dramatically reduced the power of authorities such as the FISA Court and granted retroactive immunity to telecommunications providers that cooperated with the government’s surveillance agencies. The PAA was heavily criticized by civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which called it the “Police America Act.”

The Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen, Reviewed and Effective Act (RESTORE Act) was a 2007 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that restored the checks and balances left out of the Protect America Act. Notably, it required an individualized court warrant for the targeting of persons inside the United States, reestablished the power of the FISA Court and mandated regular audits of surveillance programs.

The FISA Amendments Act (FAA) was a law hastily pushed through Congress to establish and clarify intelligence procedure when the Protect America Act expired in 2008. The FAA enhanced protections for Americans overseas but increased the time allowed for warrantless surveillance and allowed eavesdropping in emergency situations. It also granted immunity to the telecommunications companies involved in the Bush administration’s wiretapping scandal and renewed the government’s authority to monitor electronic communications of foreigners abroad without a warrant. Section 702 of the FAA, which permits the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to target “persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information,” authorizes foreign surveillance programs like PRISM, which in 2008 were no longer protected by George W. Bush’s President’s Surveillance Program. The day that the FAA was enacted, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups sued James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, claiming that the FAA violated the first and fourth amendments. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which decided that the groups could not challenge the FAA because they could not prove that they had personally been targets of surveillance.  Congress and President Obama extended the provisions of the FAA for five more years in 2012. The law now applies through the end of 2017.

(MORE: The Surveillance Society)

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) was the US government’s primary legislative response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Passed a month after the attacks, it dramatically expanded the investigative powers of the executive branch, broadened the definition of terrorism, increased the budget for counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts and tightened restrictions on immigration to the United States. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act modified the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by allowing the FBI to secretly collect records, papers and other documents—domestically or elsewhere—for use in counterterrorism or counterintelligence investigations. Section 215 was condemned by a number of organizations and public figures because it did not require the presence of a defendant or proof of probable cause before the commencement of data collection.

PRISM is an electronic surveillance data mining program operated by the United States National Security Agency under Section 702 of the PATRIOT Act. PRISM commenced operation under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court after the passage of the Protect America Act in 2007. Technically, the program cannot “target” Americans because it must operate legally under FISA; however, the information leaked in June by Edward Snowden revealed that NSA analysts can exploit a number of loopholes in surveillance legislation to obtain the private communications of Americans at home. Through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, PRISM collects the broad outlines of communications stored on the servers of nine providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, Youtube and Apple. The program is believed to be unconstitutional by the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWatch USA and other civil rights advocates.

BLARNEY is a data mining program operated by the National Security Agency alongside PRISM. According to the slides leaked by Edward Snowden, BLARNEY is an “upstream” program that collects Internet metadata in the same way that the NSA collects phone data: by sucking up information “on fiber cables and infrastructure as it flows past.” The program’s summary describes BLARNEY as “an ongoing collection program that leverages IC [intelligence community] and commercial partnerships to gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks.” Unlike PRISM, BLARNEY only collects metadata.

Metadata, strictly speaking, is information about data rather than data itself. In the context of the NSA leaks, metadata is information about phone and email messages that does not include their content. Examples include the time and location of phone calls or the author, date created and file size of an email. US law does not require the procurement of a warrant before obtaining metadata.

(MORE: Americans Sharply Split on Privacy Issues)