I hear some say that it is illegal for NSA to snoop on American citizens without a warrant. As a non American living outside USA, what rights do I have against surveillance by NSA?

  • 7
    I'll craft a longer answer in a bit, but none under US law.
    – Publius
    Mar 7 '14 at 4:29
  • 3
    You have the right to be surveilled. Everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. :) Mar 7 '14 at 12:17
  • Are you talking about US citizens only? Angela Merkela would have no rights. Mar 7 '14 at 12:18
  • 1
    May be UN can declare it as a human right :) Perhaps in a parallel universe.
    – jorel
    Mar 7 '14 at 15:08
  • @Colombo if they did it would be that you have the right be be from US Surveillance, but anyone else is fine... Mar 7 '14 at 18:46

Article 17 in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

  1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.

  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The USA ratified the ICCPR in 1992 but with some reservations. Article 17 in particular is not self-executing, i.e. it cannot be given effect without the aid of legislation (my understanding is that from a US perspective foreigners have no rights).


(I'm not a law expert.)

  • Good find. Article 17 seems to cover this case. Lets see what other readers think about this.
    – jorel
    Mar 9 '14 at 1:20

As you are talking about surveillance by the NSA (National Security Agency), it should be said that the NSA is an intelligence organization of the United States government, responsible for global monitoring, collection, and processing of information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes.

Apart from that there is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) [which] is a civilian foreign intelligence agency of the U.S. Government, tasked with gathering, processing and analyzing national security information from around the world.

I think those are the best known US intelligence services, but there are a 17 more.

Coming to your question: What are my rights against NSA surveillance?

First have a look what these security agencies do, a few examples:

• Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal;

• The agency already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;

• The company worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide;

• Microsoft also worked with the FBI's Data Intercept Unit to "understand" potential issues with a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases;

• In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism;

• Material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a "team sport".


According to the NSA documents, work had begun on smoothly integrating Skype into Prism in November 2010, but it was not until 4 February 2011 that the company was served with a directive to comply signed by the attorney general.

Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and other large tech companies let the National Security Agency search through confidential customer data, according to the Washington Post.


A top-secret surveillance program gives the National Security Agency surreptitious access to customer information held by Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Google, Facebook, and other Internet companies, according to a pair of new reports.

The program, code-named PRISM, reportedly allows NSA analysts to peruse exabytes of confidential user data held by Silicon Valley firms by typing in search terms. PRISM reports have been used in 1,477 items in President Obama's daily briefing last year, according to an internal presentation to the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate obtained by the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers. This afternoon's disclosure of PRISM follows another report yesterday that revealed the existence of another top-secret NSA program that vacuums up records of millions of phone calls made inside the United States.

The Utah Data Center, also known as the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, is a data storage facility for the United States Intelligence Community that is designed to store data estimated to be on the order of exabytes or larger.


The data center is alleged to be able to process "all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Internet searches, as well as all types of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter'." In response to claims that the data center would be used to illegally monitor email of U.S. citizens, in April 2013 an NSA spokesperson said, "Many unfounded allegations have been made about the planned activities of the Utah Data Center, ... one of the biggest misconceptions about NSA is that we are unlawfully listening in on, or reading emails of, U.S. citizens. This is simply not the case."4

In April 2009, officials at the United States Department of Justice acknowledged that the NSA had engaged in large-scale overcollection of domestic communications in excess of the federal intelligence court's authority, but claimed that the acts were unintentional and had since been rectified.8

In August 2012, The New York Times published short documentaries by independent filmmakers entitled The Program,9 based on interviews with a whistleblower named William Binney. The project had been designed for foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection but, Binney alleged, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, controls that limited unintentional collection of data pertaining to U.S. citizens were removed, prompting concerns by him and others that the actions were illegal and unconstitutional. Binney alleged that the Bluffdale facility was designed to store a broad range of domestic communications for data mining without warrants.

Maybe this has been a bit much additional info...

A legal basis for mass surveillance is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008

an Act of Congress that amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It has been used as the legal basis for mass surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden in 2014, including PRISM.


Under subsection 702(b) of the FISA Amendments Act, such an acquisition is also subject to several limitations. Specifically, an acquisition:

  • May not intentionally target any person known at the time of acquisition to be located in the United States;
  • May not intentionally target a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States if the purpose of such acquisition is to target a particular, known person reasonably believed to be in the United States;
  • May not intentionally target a U.S. person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States;
  • May not intentionally acquire any communication as to which the sender and all intended recipients are known at the time of the acquisition to be located in the United States;
  • Must be conducted in a manner consistent with the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Section 702 authorizes foreign surveillance programs by the National Security Agency (NSA), like PRISM and some earlier data collection activities which were previously authorized under the President's Surveillance Program from 2001.

There is also the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act

[It is] a United States wiretapping law passed in 1994, during the presidency of Bill Clinton (Pub. L. No. 103-414, 108 Stat. 4279, codified at 47 USC 1001-1010).

CALEA's purpose is to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to conduct electronic surveillance by requiring that telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment modify and design their equipment, facilities, and services to ensure that they have built-in surveillance capabilities, allowing federal agencies to wiretap any telephone traffic; it has since been extended to cover broadband internet and VoIP traffic. Some government agencies argue that it covers monitoring communications rather than just tapping specific lines and that not all CALEA-based access requires a warrant.

So, I think it is difficult to insist on ones rights, especially for foreigners. The best way to protect your data is to encrypt them.

EFF is an international non-profit digital rights group based in the United States. Here you can look for their legal cases.

  • As I understood Microsoft, Internet companies and EFF all concerned mainly about privacy of Americans. I don't see much of a problem with that though.
    – jorel
    Jul 27 '15 at 1:22
  • Privacy is a very important, but that is big huge to declare this in a comment.
    – Sir Sy
    Jul 27 '15 at 11:48

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