Snowden case study

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The documents leaked by Snowden included details about the NSA data analysis and data visualization tool Boundless Informant, a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand the NSA millions of Americans’ phone records daily, and the surveillance of French citizens’ phone and Internet records, along with those of high-profile individuals from the world of business or politics. The documents also described XKeyscore, which allows for the collection of almost anything done on the Internet, including the content of personal email, Web search history, and browsing patterns.

The documents revealed that the NSA was harvesting millions of email and instant messaging contact lists, searching email content, tracking and mapping the location of cell phones, and undermining attempts at encryption to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance. The NSA was shown to be secretly tapping into Yahoo and Google data centers to collect information from hundreds of millions of account holders worldwide by tapping undersea cables using the MUSCULAR program.

Additionally, the NSA, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British intelligence agency GCHQ spied on users of Second Life and World of Warcraft by creating make-believe characters to hide in plain sight. NSA intelligence-gathering operations had targeted Brazil’s largest oil company, Petrobras. Tensions flared between the U.S. and some of its close allies after it was revealed that the U.S. had spied on Brazil, France, Mexico, Britain, China, Germany and Spain, as well as 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Snowden’s revelations reignited the public debate about how to strike a balance between security and liberty in the age of global terrorism and powerful technology. U.S. officials have stated that PRISM, in concert with other techniques, has helped thwart dozens of terrorist plots in the U.S. and overseas. President Obama argued that modest encroachments on privacy, including keeping records of phone numbers called and the length of calls that can be used to track terrorists, though not listening in to calls, were worthwhile to protect the country. These programs were authorized by Congress and regularly reviewed by federal courts.

Critics charge that PRISM represents a massive invasion of privacy. They believe that routinely giving phone records and e-mail contents to the federal government is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against search and seizure without a warrant and probable cause, even though this Amendment applies only to personal papers in the home. More than half of Americans surveyed by a Washington Post-ABC News Poll in November 2013 said that the NSA surveillance has intruded on their personal privacy rights. However, U.S. courts have ruled that modern communication tools effectively bypass the Fourth Amendment. Under these rulings, our telephone data—whom we call and how long we are connected—are not considered to be under traditional Fourth Amendment protection (through something called the Third Party Doctrine, which holds that knowingly disclosing information to a third party—in this case, an Internet service provider—abrogates that protection). By the same reasoning, our e-mails are generally considered unprotected as well (though there is some legal ambiguity here).

A panel appointed by President Obama has called for a major overhaul of NSA operations. In the meantime, Snowden has been charged with espionage and theft and has been living in Russia. Among those worried about NSA encroachment on individual privacy, Snowden has been praised as a hero. Among those more concerned with national security and the need to protect the nation and its citizens from terrorist and other attacks, Snowden is vilified as a traitor. The debate—and it is a very heated one—continues.

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