PRISM's Legal Basis: How We Got Here, and What We Can Do to Get Back

A privacy scholar explains the recent news about government surveillance.
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The National Security Administration building and a copy of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order to Verizon (AP/Patrick Semansky and AP)

In the past two days, the press has provided unprecedented revelations of how pervasive the secret surveillance state has become. Leaks reveal that the FBI and NSA have received all Verizon Business Services telephone call records , including geolocation data; and the NSA uses a program called PRISM to access user content held by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. How can a country that constitutionally protects privacy permit its government to spy on such a scale?

The Fourth Amendment prevents dragnet surveillance by requiring law enforcement to go to courts and show probable cause. These dual requirements of court oversight and a legitimate, targeted investigation ensure that people will not be subject to general searches by an abusive government. But intelligence-gathering that involves "the activities of foreign powers" is treated differently, whether it occurs inside or outside of the United States.

Foreign intelligence is the exception that has swallowed the Fourth Amendment whole. As my colleague Anjali Dalal points out, people probably believe that foreign intelligence law is " supposed to be going after foreign intelligence ," but its impact on Americans is surprisingly broad. In 1978, Congress set up a system governing foreign intelligence surveillance. The surveillance programs leaked in the past two days are the results of the post-9/11 version of this system. The Verizon call records, which include phone numbers, location data, and timestamps, were authorized as the collection of "business records" under the PATRIOT Act. And the PRISM program--which allows the NSA to access content such as emails, search histories, and audio chats-- is authorized as part of "foreign intelligence" gathering under the 2008 Amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

It is crucial to understand that the foreign intelligence system as it currently exists fails to require both adequate targeting and adequate oversight. The system allows intelligence agencies to gather an enormous amount of information "incidental" to any investigations. And it does so with minimal court and Congressional oversight. If the revelations of the past two days have taught us anything, it is that revision of our foreign intelligence surveillance system is a constitutional necessity. If the Fourth Amendment is to have any meaning, Congress must untangle the current web of broad authorizations and broad secrecy that allows the government to escape judicial accountability for its acts.

First, there is the question of whom the surveillance targets. PRISM spies on Americans. The Director of National Intelligence emphasized yesterday that PRISM targets only " non-U.S. persons located outside the United States ." But the press release also acknowledges that "information about U.S. persons" may be "incidentally acquired" in such pursuits. Targeting is not the same as collecting; the program may "target" foreign persons, but "acquire" information on Americans.

The current scope of this "incidental" surveillance will shock most Americans. Before 2008, the law limited "incidental" surveillance by limiting primary surveillance. The government had to show probable cause that its surveillance target was the agent of a foreign power, and that the facility being watched was about to be used by that target. You could be incidentally observed if you communicated with a targeted foreign agent, but otherwise foreign communications were likely to be unmonitored.

But in 2008, the FISA Amendments Act (FISAAA) changed this. The government now does not need to show probable cause that the target is a foreign agent. It need only have a "reasonable belief" that the target is located outside of the United States. The new version of FISA does not require the government to identify its targets; it does not require the government to identify the monitored facilities; and the purpose of foreign intelligence gathering attaches to the whole surveillance program, not the individual investigation. That is to say: the FISA Amendments Act permits the government to obtain a single court order through which it can monitor thousands, or even millions, of people. The scope of "incidental" surveillance thus vastly expanded as Congress lowered the requirements for spying on the primary target.

Presented by

Margot Kaminski is the executive director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. More

She is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School and a former fellow of the Information Society Project. While at Yale Law School, she was a Knight Law and Media Scholar and co-founder of the Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum. Following graduation from Yale Law School, she clerked for The Honorable Andrew J. Kleinfeld of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She has been a Radcliffe Research Fellow at Harvard and a Google Policy Fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Her research and advocacy work focuses on media freedom, online civil liberties, data mining, and surveillance issues. She has written widely on law and technology issues for law journals and the popular press and has drawn public attention to the civil liberties issues surrounding the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

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