Senate Panel: Is NSA Watching Americans Buy Guns? Books? Tools? Aspirin?
June 28, 2013 by Ben Bullard
A group of Senators from both political parties is investigating whether the National Security Agency (NSA) has been mining data on Americans’ purchasing habits, focusing especially on firearms and media consumption.
The 26-member group sent a letter Thursday to NSA Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, asking him to explain how, and to what extent, the agency grabs up data generated from citizens’ network-based credit transactions, banking data, library records and pharmacy visits.
Asserting that the U.S. Patriot Act authorized surveillance methods that hid government’s broad reach from both American citizens and the limiting influence of Congressional oversight, the Senators question both the efficacy and the legality of relying on the Patriot Act as a rubber-stamp search tool for the vast majority of Americans who aren’t suspected of a crime.
The PATRIOT Act’s business records authority is very broad in its scope. It can be used to collect information on credit card purchases, pharmacy records, library records, firearm sales records, financial information, and a range of other sensitive subjects. And the bulk collection authority could potentially be used to supersede bans on maintaining gun owner databases, or laws protecting the privacy of medical records, financial records, and records of book and movie purchases. These other types of bulk collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans’ privacy and liberties as well.
It has been suggested that the privacy impact of particular methods of domestic surveillance should be weighed against the degree to which the surveillance enhances our national security. With this in mind, we are interested in hearing more details about why you believe that the bulk phone records collection program provides any unique value.
…[W]e are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law. Statements from senior officials that the PATRIOT Act authority is “analogous to a grand jury subpoena” and that the NSA “[doesn't] hold data on US citizens” had the effect of misleading the public about how the law was being interpreted and implemented.
This prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly.
The letter is blunt in asking many of the same questions Americans outraged by the (known) scope of the NSA’s surveillance methods want to ask:
- How long has the NSA used PATRIOT Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans’ records? Was this collection underway when the law was reauthorized in 2006?
- Has the NSA used USA PATRIOT Act authorities to conduct bulk collection of any other types of records pertaining to Americans, beyond phone records?
- Has the NSA collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site location data in bulk?
- Have there been any violations of the court orders permitting this bulk collection, or of the rules governing access to these records? If so, please describe these violations.
- Please identify any specific examples of instances in which intelligence gained by reviewing phone records obtained through Section 215 bulk collection proved useful in thwarting a particular terrorist plot.
- Please provide specific examples of instances in which useful intelligence was gained by reviewing phone records that could not have been obtained without the bulk collection authority, if such examples exist.
- Please describe the employment status of all persons with conceivable access to this data, including IT professionals, and detail whether they are federal employees, civilian or military, or contractors.