Fed Surveillance More Widespread Than You Think

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WASHINGTON -- It turns out big brother really is watching you. CBN News has discovered government's surveillance programs are widespread and they're operating with the approval of a secret court.

The ways Americans can be tracked through technology advance constantly.

"It's hard for you to know all the places where information is being generated about you," Justin Brookman, with the Center for Democracy and Technology, said.

But privacy advocates say it shouldn't have taken an information leak for Americans to learn just how widespread such programs are and the legal justification used for carrying them out -- like when it asked major phone service providers like Verizon to turn over phone records all in the name of national security.

"They reveal who we talk to when we talk to them, who we talk to the most," Alan Butler, appellate advocacy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said.

That gives big brother a legal peephole into your circle of contacts, he said.

EPIC filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court this week asking justices to dissolve the order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that allows the NSA to collect records of millions of phone calls made every day by U.S. residents.

"They're collecting this information, as you said, about people who may have done nothing wrong or not be implicated in a national security investigation at all," Butler told CBN News.

Here's the issue: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, includes language that allows the government to collect business records -- in this case Verizon's. But the law says the records must be "relevant" to a national security investigation.

The problem is in interpreting that law.

A secret FISA court is in charge of approving what records the government can collect. That court is reportedly defining the word "relevant" very broadly in terrorism cases -- so much so that experts say the government can gain access to virtually any electronic information.

"The specific files requested have to be relevant to a specific investigation. Whereas what's happening right now is collection of all call detail records of Americans under the theory that at some point in the future they may become relevant to some investigation," Butler explained.

Sharon Franklin, senior counsel for the Constitution Project, said the situation is disturbing.
 
"The sheer over-collection of information right there is troubling because it's hard to see how that complies with existing law and constitutional restrictions," she told CBN News.

"And then once the government has that information in its databases there are very few limits, not enough limits, on how the government can use that information for subsequent purposes. So that raises a whole lot of potential for abuse," she warned.
    
Some fear that potential abuse will eventually lead to a state of constant surveillance.

"It's a critical question of scope because if the interpretation of relevance under this law is going to be some interpretation that we've never seen before in a criminal court or civil court, then the public has a right to know," Butler said.
    
The National Security Agency collects information in the name of national security, but Franklin said security and privacy don't have to be in conflict.

"In fact, if we make sure to have appropriate standards and require the government to establish an appropriate predicate, a connection to terrorism when they're collecting information that's actually going to make their programs more efficient, they're going to be going after the real bad guys," he said.

"And it's also going to protect privacy by limiting the intrusion on the rights of innocent Americans," he said.
    
For now, the government, the courts, and Americans have to figure out how much surveillance is acceptable -- and necessary -- in the name of security.

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Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.