US tracks every phone call within its borders
What has been revealed and why does it matter?
Two things. The first is a massive effort to track hundreds of millions of telephone calls made within the US every day.
While the programme does not actually record what was said, it does tell the government who made the call and what number they were calling, as well as the duration and the location of the conversation. The programme was disclosed in a leaked court document where the US government compelled a subsidiary of Verizon, the telephone company, to hand over all of its data for three months. In fact the programme has been renewed on a rolling basis for the past seven years and could be happening for all other major telephone companies. In other words, it's possible the US is tracking every single telephone call made within its borders.
The second programme is a more targeted effort to harvest data on foreigners from online sources. According to 'The Washington Post' and 'The Guardian', the National Security Agency (NSA) has direct access to the internal servers of Facebook, Google and seven other internet giants. This reportedly allows the government to search at will for whatever data it feels it needs.
Why do they want this?
The US claims that information from both programmes is vital in the fight against terrorism. Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said that data from the phone programme had prevented a terrorist attack "within the last few years".
James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, said last night that the online data was among the most "important and valuable" information collected anywhere by US intelligence.
Who exactly are they targeting?
The telephone programme is designed to identify suspicious activity which, with further investigation and authorisation, could identify a potential foreign terrorist organisation.
The internet programme is for use only against foreigners. It cannot be used to target people living within US borders. But that doesn't mean that Americans' data is not getting caught up in the dragnet. If the NSA was looking at an email conversation between an individual in Yemen and someone in the US it would, by necessity, be looking at an American's data.
What can they see?
The telephone programme is restricted to what is technically called "telephony metadata" – all the information about the call short of what was actually said. On the internet programme there seems to be basically no restrictions. The NSA can see emails, pictures, videos and more.
What companies are involved in the web programme?
Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple are "providers" of information.
A leaked slide show strongly implies that the companies know what is going on and are co-operating with the US authorities on it. But many have rushed to issue statements denying that they allow the government to take whatever it wants. Twitter does not feature on the NSA list. (© Daily Telegraph, London)