By Elizabeth Holland, Public Policy Associate
Earlier this week, news broke that the National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a dragnet, top secret court order which provides location information, time, date, duration, and telephone numbers for all customer calls within the U.S. and between U.S. callers and foreign phone numbers. It appears the Section 215 order to obtain phone records is a regular renewal of a program that has occurred in secret every three months for the past seven years. Then, the Washington Post reported yesterday that the National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets. The program, code-named PRISM, had not been made public until now. Even the targeted Internet companies say they weren’t aware of the program, which was confirmed by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
The level of secrecy surrounding these surveillance programs is astounding, and as the ACLU states, it has “stymied our system of checks and balances.” AALL urges Congress to immediately conduct an investigation into the Executive Branch’s surveillance authority and enact reforms that protect Americans’ right to privacy and ensure effective oversight of our government.
AALL believes the protection of personal privacy is a core value of our society and has long called for greater oversight of surveillance programs. As our Government Relations Policy states, “AALL supports a comprehensive national and state framework for privacy protection to safeguard the rights of all Americans. We oppose any current or future legislation, regulation, or guideline that erodes the privacy and confidentiality of library users or that has the effect of suppressing the free and open exchange of ideas and information.” The government has a responsibility to protect the privacy of library users, including the confidentiality of library circulation and research records. Changes to existing laws to protect electronic communications and effective oversight of laws that expand surveillance of library users are crucial to citizens’ privacy.
The PRISM program appears to be based on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FISA), which authorizes surveillance of communications if one party is believed to be outside the US. During FISA debate last year, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) last raised concerns about the possibility of a loophole in section 702 that “could be used to circumvent traditional warrant protections and search for the communications of a potentially large number of American citizens.” FISA does not require the government to identify targets of their surveillance. AALL joined a number of groups to oppose the reauthorization of FISA last fall and urged members to contact their members of Congress opposition.
Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act has been used to justify the surveillance of Verizon phone records. Section 215 expanded the government’s power to collect information about innocent Americans by requiring the production of “any tangible thing” (including books, records, papers and documents) it claims to be relevant to authorized foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. For more than a decade, AALL has urged Congress to reform the PATRIOT Act to balance the government’s interest in protecting national security with defending the constitutional rights of the American people. When the Act last came up for renewal, we joined other library associations in supporting language that would tighten Section 215 to require the government to show relevance to an authorized investigation and a link to a foreign group or power in order to obtain library circulation records or patron lists.
The news of this week makes clear that these reforms and greater oversight of surveillance programs are imperative to the health of our democracy. We call on Congress to act now to safeguard the rights and civil liberties of all Americans, while fulfilling the obligation to protect our citizens and national security.