How does the US government respond to allegations that the NSA records details about every telephone call in the United States, and has access to vast amounts of data from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple and AOL servers? US National Intelligence director James Clapper has released two statements defending the data collection by suggesting that these actions are wholly legal, and that the government has many procedures in place limiting how the data can be accessed.

The full statements, which you can read here and here, primarily argue that this is all legal, its components are already signed into law, and that the programs can only target people who aren't US citizens or who are likely to be terrorists. With regards to phone records, Clapper claims that only metadata is collected, not the contents of telephone calls, and that government agencies are held responsible to a certain set of limitations by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court:

By order of the FISC, the Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling. The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization. Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the court-approved procedures may even access the records.

The statements suggest that the government thinks it's okay to collect and retain a vast quantity of records about US citizens, so long as a secret court ensures that those US citizens aren't actually targeted.

"The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen."

Clapper seems to be missing the point on several counts, though. When you aggregate enough metadata in one place, it adds up to data, period. With the GPS location of an individual and a photo they've taken and the phone number of a person they're talking to, it's not difficult to get an idea of what they're doing. When you rely on a secret court to hold accountable an agency that works in secret, it's hard to trust that their agents are acting responsibly with regards to that data. And if your argument is that this is all legal, already approved by our representatives, then why is the American public so surprised that the government would be involved in such broad domestic surveillance?

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