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The Many Ways That Obama Has Been Spying On You

For the first time, we've got a clear picture of how much of your personal communications the government is keeping records of. It is a lot.

Planning on doing something online today? Or making a phone call, perhaps? Well, do it with a smile, because the National Security Agency will have a record of it. Over the last 24 hours, a pair of game-changing reports have revealed the truly stunning amount of data the federal government is collecting about your personal life. There's a lot of information swirling around now, so here's a handy guide to all of the things Obama's crew have gone big brother on.

First, the background: On Tuesday, June 5th, The Guardian dropped the bombshell that the National Security Agency was requiring Verizon, via court order, to turn over the metadata for all of its call records. The NSA has apparently forced Verizon to indiscriminately have over information about all of its millions of communications records on an "ongoing, daily basis". If you use Verizon, we learned, the NSA has copies of the metadata of all of the phone calls you've made over the last two months.


Then, the Washington Post revealed that ever since 2007, at least nine of the top technology companies—including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook—were knowingly allowing the NSA to mine all of its user data in a program ominously called PRISM. Then came this:

NBC News has learned that under the post-9/11 Patriot Act, the government has been collecting records on every phone call made in the U.S.

— NBC Nightly News (@nbcnightlynews) June 6, 2013

So it's not just Verizon, then. Surprise. It's all a little dizzying. It's enough to make a privacy advocate's head explode. And it makes the revelation that the Obama administration had swiped two months of phone records from the Associated Press seem downright quaint. I mean, this is hundreds of millions of Americans we're talking about. To clarify, here's a handy list of everyone the NSA has essentially been spying on in the United States of America:

  • Every person who has dialed, texted, or otherwise used a cell phone or land line over the last seven years. Your metadata is stored somewhere in NSA's servers, where the government has access to every communication you have completed since 2007.
  • Anyone who maintains a Facebook profile, Gmail account, or Yahoo! account.
  • Anyone who has communicated on Skype or a Google Hangout at any point over the last six years.  
  • Anyone who has entered a search query on Google or Bing.
  • Anyone who has had an online conversation on Gchat or Facebook.
  • Perhaps, even, anyone who has charged something to their credit card—the details are murkier here, but the Wall Street Journal reports that the NSA has a PRISM-like deal with credit card companies to hand over data about what you're buying.


To be clear, here, this isn't spying 1.0—the NSA isn't actively listening to your calls or watching suspicious chats scroll by on some ominous control screen. The Week's Mark Ambinder notes that it's much more mundane, in explaining how the NSA uses your telephone records—and, ostensibly, your data.

First of all, the NSA isn't recording the cell phone conversations themselves. They're keeping the metadata, which includes pretty much everything else: the time the call was made, its duration, who the call was made to, etc. Less is known about practices surrounding the data-mining, but it's likely being stored in a similar dump as the telephone metadata, which is kept in a giant database called MARINA.

The vast majority of that data just sits there—the NSA must allegedly seek permission from a court if it dips into the data pool for assistance into an investigation. However, the agency can do this, legally, even after it has already pulled the files. And because the NSA appears to be borderline violating the directive of the Patriot Act that ostensibly makes the whole operation legal in the first place—that it must have "tangible" reason to monitor someone's data—and because the project's operating procedures are classified and incredibly murky, it's hard to know if they are being lawfully or responsibly adhered to.

So that's where we are right now. Obama has clearly expanded the surveillance activities instigated by George W. Bush, though he is not wiretapping phones outright like his predecessor. Still, his administration has overseen the most drastic expansion of surveillance by the state, perhaps in history. Our chat logs, status updates, phone records, even our video conference calls—they're all sitting in a massive database housed in a government-protected data center like the gigantic complex that's currently wrapping construction in Utah.

Whether or not that alarms you, I suppose, depends on the amount of faith you place in secretive government agencies to access and analyze your data lawfully and responsibly, both now and five years on. For its part, the government's intelligence bureau has responded by vowing to declassify some elements of the program, so the public can "understand its limits."

Most of us know we've ceded some of our privacy by embracing the digital era—we know Facebook is hocking our data to advertisers, we know the Patriot Act is still standing—but knowing that Uncle Sam is keeping a massive record of every digital thing we've done in a giant bowl of data in the desert is likely to make some skin crawl.