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Christie Thompson: The Best Stories on the Government’s Growing Surveillance

June 10, 2013

What we know about what the government knows.

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By Christie Thompson
By arrangement with ProPublica

Last Wednesday, the Guardian published documents revealing the government has been collecting months’ worth of telephone “metadata” on millions of Verizon customers. The Washington Post and the Guardian followed with news that both the National Security Agency and the FBI have been pulling Americans’ data from major web companies like Facebook and Google.

Since 9/11, the government has been collecting enormous amounts of information on citizens. But most of the data grabbing is done in secret. What do we know about what the government knows? Here’s our reading guide to the government’s growing surveillance.

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts, New York Times, December 2005

In 2005, the New York Times broke the story of warrantless wiretapping under President George W. Bush. The National Security Agency previously listened in on calls in which both parties were abroad, but monitoring expanded under Bush to include U.S. calls and emails made to overseas contacts. Officials said it was an attempt to track “dirty numbers” that were linked to al Qaida.

NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls, USA Today, May 2006

Last week’s Guardian report isn’t the first we’ve heard of the government collecting Americans’ phone records. In 2006, USA Today revealed that the Bush administration was collecting call records of Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth customers without going through the courts.

Top Secret America, Washington Post, July 2010

As the U.S. counterterrorism system grew to encompass thousands of government agencies and private contractors, it became “an enterprise so massive that nobody in government has a full understanding of it.” The Washington Post reported the NSA was collecting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other communications every day, “overwhelming the system’s ability to analyze and use it.”

The Secret Sharer: Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?, New Yorker, May 2011

Obama promised to increase transparency, but he’s pursued more leak investigations than any other U.S. president. Former NSA executive Thomas Drake faced charges under the Espionage Act for leaking documents on the agency’s growing surveillance of private citizens (he eventually pled guilty to a much lesser charge.) Drake’s case is a window into the NSA as domestic spying took off.

The Surveillance Catalog, The Wall Street Journal, February 2012

Plenty of governments are spending to spy on their citizens. Documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal reveal what’s in governments’ toolbox. Some software enables governments to translate and analyze voices from massive wiretaps to discern what’s being discussed, or to steal data from “hundreds of thousands” of targets.

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), Wired, March 2012

The “Utah Data Center” may sound like just another office park, but the National Security Agency’s $2-billion project will soon be home to the biggest database of U.S. citizens’ personal information, from private emails to bookstore receipts. When it opens in September 2013, it will also be where codebreakers work to crack into heavily encrypted data.

U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens, The Wall Street Journal, December 2012

The National Counterterrorism Center was once only allowed to store data on citizens if they were terror suspects or related to an ongoing investigation. Not anymore. The Wall Street Journal details the “sea change” in policy under Obama, that lets the center collect and examine information on any U.S. citizen—whether or not they’re suspected of a crime.

Christie Thompson is an intern at ProPublica. She studied journalism at Northwestern University, and has written for The Nation, The Chicago Reporter and TheAtlantic.com.

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