Today, It's not uncommon to hear about the NSA and PRISM, and how they've collected information in a controversial manner.

The problem is, that most reports cite abstract "Information on Americans" or, in the case of PRSIM, "Email information" and "Internet Information"

My question is:

  • What controversial information is the NSA/PRISM known to have collected?
  • What controversial methods has the NSA/PRISM used to collect this information?
  • What is the controversy regarding this information/methods?

3 Answers 3


What is the controversy regarding this information/methods?

The main controversies are:

  • The fact that NSA's charter had always explicitly excluded domestic surveillance

    NSA's mission, as set forth in Executive Order 12333, is to collect information that constitutes "foreign intelligence or counterintelligence" while not "acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of United States persons". (Wiki)

    The recent Snowden leaks are generating controversy because the NSA gathers information which is purely domestic communications.

  • The lack of warrants for gathering the information and disseminating it to other Law Enforcement agencies, which clashes with at least the spirit (judicial rulings are needed on the letter) of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Very good detailed description of how NSA's domestic surveillance program works is at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): https://www.eff.org/nsa-spying/how-it-works

A pretty comprehensive list of controversies is on the Wikipedia.

DA's answer already covered the information/methods, to wit, the information in and out of itself isn't controversial, only when coupled with who gathered it and under which circumstances (domestic comms by NSA without warrants); and methods are only controversial because of unexpectedness of scale and secrecy.

  • The NSA, in theory, requires warrants to spy on domestic targets not communicating with foreign targets, so I'm not sure it's totally accurate to talk about the lack of warrants required.
    – Publius
    Aug 28, 2013 at 2:23
  • I'm not talking about the controversy, just noting that, contrary to what a person might understand from your answer, warrants are sometimes required.
    – Publius
    Aug 28, 2013 at 2:29
  • Yeah, that's more accurate and clear.
    – Publius
    Aug 28, 2013 at 2:36
  • I wonder if the NSA was giving very lawyerly answers when they said, "I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans' phone calls without a specific warrant." Owens said, NSA spokeshole Perhaps they use voice to text services, and never "listen" to the call, but instead just read it? After all, the "content" of the call isn't being listened to, it is the interpretation of the V-to-Txt app's output.
    – user1873
    Aug 28, 2013 at 3:42

Ok, so first you need to understand what PRISM is. It is a government program that utilizes supercomputers to analyze all network traffic passing through the internet. For example, if you sent an email to your buddy Osama, a terrorist in Pakistan asking him where to buy bombs and sent it through gmail, it would pass through Google's servers. Before this though, it would go through your ISP (Internet Service Provider) (Verizon, Comcast, Etc.) Most of these companies secretly have servers that relay information to the NSA. The method of connection isn't important but once the NSA has this information, a program filters it for key words (bomb, explosion, Etc.) after this the content would most likely pass to a live person.

[TLDR]-The issue is that the NSA can't legally supervise American communication, that's the FBI's job, and this method collects all data, american or foreign.

  • I don't think this is entirely accurate. They have access to information directly from the major data providers (such as Google)--not that they are 'live scanning actual traffic' (from your ISP). Same end result, of course, just a difference of technology.
    – user1530
    Aug 27, 2013 at 20:48
  • XKeyscore does that, not PRISM.
    – Publius
    Aug 27, 2013 at 20:52
  • @DA. - whether they get the info from Verizon or Google is somewhat irrelevant as far as the spirit of the 4th Amendment, even if it may affect the legal nuances.
    – user4012
    Aug 28, 2013 at 2:27
  • @dvk uh...sure.
    – user1530
    Aug 28, 2013 at 3:07

What controversial information is the NSA/PRISM known to have collected?

It's not the information that's controversial, but the extent of information they have access to--which appears to most communications going through the major internet communications providers (Google, Microsoft, Etc)

What controversial methods has the NSA/PRISM used to collect this information?

I suppose there's lots of controversial aspects depending on who you ask but I think the primary controversy is that the major providers were handing this information over on request and this was not universally known to the public.

What is the controversy regarding this information/methods?

The controversial part of the entire ordeal is that they were likely accessing US Citizen's information sans Warrants. Not necessarily intentionally, but due to the fact that they were only "51% sure" at any given time that the data they were looking at wasn't from a US Citizen (It's illegal to wiretap on an American Citizen without a warrant).

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PRISM_(surveillance_program)#United_States_mass_data_collection_programs

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