Privacy advocates are pushing the US Congress to rein in the US National Security Agency's efforts to collect massive amounts of data from US residents, as alleged in recent news reports.
More than 80 organisations have signed a letter calling on Congress to take "take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA's and the FBI's data collection programs."
Recent news reports from the Guardian and the Washington Post say "the U.S. government is extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person's movements and contacts over time," said the letter, part of the new StopWatching.us campaign. "As a result, the contents of communications of people both abroad and in the U.S. can be swept in without any suspicion of crime or association with a terrorist organisation."
The US intelligence agencies have been collecting business-record metadata from Verizon, several Internet companies and possibly from other telecom carriers and credit-card companies, according to the recent news reports. The source of the information about the data collection was Edward Snowden, a contractor at the NSA.
The danger of large-scale data collection is that it can come back to haunt U.S. residents years later, said Peter Swire, a law professor and chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium's do not track process. With the data collection described in news reports, government agencies will be able to collect every phone call and every email a person has made, Swire said during a forum on online privacy hosted by the Washington Post.
"If something goes wrong later, his lifetime of contacts ... is now under investigation," Swire said. "If anybody on your text list or phone list screws up, now you're on the suspect list. It's now basically part of your permanent record."
The news reports suggest there's no meaningful oversight of the NSA by Congress, added Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"Everyone's a target, that's what's amazing," he said.
It appears that the NSA's data collection was legal under the Patriot Act, said Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, but Congress needs to push for more transparency about what's being collected and limit the information that can be collected. The NSA is collecting "far too much data," he said.
The US Office of Director of National Intelligence has referred questions about the NSA data collection to the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ declined to comment on the program, instead issuing this statement about Snowden:
"The Department of Justice is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access. Consistent with long-standing department policy and procedure and in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we must decline further comment."
Among the groups signing the StopWatching,us letter are Reddit, Free Press, Mozilla, Public Knowledge, the World Wide Web Consortium and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Also signing the letter were EFF founder John Perry Barlow, author Cory Doctorow and Xeni Jardin, co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. As of Tuesday morning, more than 50,000 members of activism group Demand Progress had signed a petition demanding a congressional investigation.
"This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy," the StopWatching.us letter said. "This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens' right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that protect their right to privacy."
The letter called on Congress to launch an investigation of the surveillance programs. It also called on lawmakers to reform the section of the Patriot Act that allows for widespread surveillance and the FISA Amendments Act "to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law."