We all know that the NSA uses word games to hide and downplay its activities. Words like “collect,” “conversations,” “communications” and even “surveillance” have suffered tortured definitions that create confusion rather than clarity.
There’s another one to watch: “targeted” v. “mass” surveillance.
Since 2008, the NSA has seized tens of billions of Internet communications. It uses the Upstream and PRISM programs—which the government claims are authorized under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act—to collect hundreds of millions of those communications each year. The scope is breathtaking, including the ongoing seizure and searching of communications flowing through key Internet backbone junctures,the searching of communications held by service providers like Google and Facebook, and, according to the government’s own investigators, the retention of significantly more than 250 million Internet communications per year.
Yet somehow, the NSA and its defenders still try to pass 702 surveillance off as “targeted surveillance,” asserting that it is incorrect when EFF and many others call it “mass surveillance.”
Our answer: if “mass surveillance” includes the collection of the content of hundreds of millions of communications annually and the real-time search of billions more, then the PRISM and Upstream programs under Section 702 fully satisfy that definition.
This word game is important because Section 702 is set to expire in December 2017. EFF and our colleagues who banded together to stop the Section 215 telephone records surveillance are gathering our strength for this next step in reining in the NSA. At the same time, the government spin doctors are trying to avoid careful examination by convincing Congress and the American people that this is just “targeted” surveillance and doesn’t impact innocent people.