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Comparison of privacy reports on NSA surveillance

July 2, 2014

The five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has issued two reports on NSA surveillance, one in January, one Tuesday. The first report described as illegal NSA’s collection of domestic phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The second largely endorsed a far more intrusive collection program by the NSA that collects emails, video, chats, texts and other communications of foreigners as they traverse U.S. networks.

A look at what the board said about the two programs.

SECTION 215 (NSA’s collection of U.S. “to and from” calling records, which were searched for links to foreign terrorists):

Not effective. “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”

Unconstitutional: “Section 215 does not provide an adequate legal basis to support the program.”

Not what Congress envisioned: “Congressional debates about the terms on which Section 215 should be renewed included no public discussion of the fact that the executive branch was planning to place the NSA’s bulk calling records program under the auspices of the reauthorized statute.”

SECTION 702 (Internet surveillance under the PRISM program, targeting the communications of foreigners but sometimes sweeping in American data):

Effective: “The information the program collects has been valuable and effective in protecting the nation’s security and producing useful foreign intelligence.”

Legal: “The board concludes that PRISM collection is clearly authorized by the statute” and the interception of Internet data at switching points is also permissible.

Understood by Congress: “This program is the program that was debated by Congress and written into the statute,” board member James Dempsey said.

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