Caught In the Internet

For the NSA, Phones Were Only the Beginning

A parabolic reflector with a diameter of 60 feet is pictured at the former monitoring base of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling, south of Munich, June 6, 2014. Michaela Rehle / Reuters

With the passage of the USA Freedom Act in June, Americans may think that the sprawling and unchecked surveillance apparatus that was secretly erected after 9/11 has finally been reined in. But the fight over government surveillance is far from over. For all the late-night filibusters and political brinkmanship that ultimately produced the USA Freedom Act, the legislation barely touched on many of the government’s most troubling spying programs—the ones aimed at the Internet.

Two years ago, the whistleblower Edward Snowden, then a government contractor, exposed the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. That program is now being wound down, but phone records were just the tip of the surveillance iceberg. More and more, our daily communications take place over the Internet—and there the NSA’s dragnet surveillance continues unabated. Putting an end to what some have called “the golden age of surveillance” requires protecting our online communications from government spying, too.

Over the past 15 years, the NSA has embedded itself in the infrastructure of the Internet, often by secretly collaborating with telecommunications companies that operate the Internet “backbone.” This backbone is the global network of high-capacity cables and routers that carries communications across countries and between continents. From outposts both inside and outside the United States, the NSA continuously monitors vast streams of Internet traffic as they flow past the agency’s surveillance devices. The NSA uses those devices to siphon off huge quantities of communications, often in bulk, copying them and then searching their contents for information of interest.

This is the new surveillance paradigm. It is one in which the government examines everyone’s e-mails, browsing activities, and online chats in real time, not just the communications of suspected spies and criminals. The old paradigm, in which surveillance had to be targeted to be technically and economically feasible, is being supplanted by population-level surveillance, where everyone’s communications and metadata are fair game. This new paradigm animated the NSA’s bulk collection

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