Privacy Groups Decry NSA Data Collection

The National Security Agency's database of U.S. phone call records may be illegal, says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Privacy groups responded with outrage to a May 11 news report that the National Security Agency is collecting records of billions of phone calls made in the United States.

USA Today reported that the NSA secretly collected phone call records supplied by AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon.

"A lot of us are starting to think the NSA has started to violate the law," Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington, told eWEEK May 11.

Rotenberg said collecting such data is something the NSA isnt supposed to be doing.

"It appears to flatly contradict the statement by General Hayden when he said that the domestic surveillance program was highly targeted towards Al-Qaeda," Rotenberg said. General Michael Hayden was head of the NSA at the time the collection of phone records was said to have begun, and is now the nominee to head the CIA.

/zimages/5/28571.gifSenators question Verizon Communications and Sprint Nextel regarding NSA activities. Read more here.

Gen. Hayden is being questioned by Congress the week of May 15 about domestic surveillance.

According to the USA Today story, BellSouth, AT&T, Verizon and SBC agreed to cooperate with the NSA, while Qwest declined. AT&T and SBC have since merged and now operate under the AT&T name.

While the NSA is said to be collecting call records into a single massive database, the content of the calls is apparently not being recorded. However, the fact that the database is said to cover millions of Americans, not just those suspected of a crime or a link to terrorism, is causing great concern.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read about legislative efforts to bring NSA spying under review.

Rotenberg said that while many may worry about the information the NSA is collecting, their thoughts should go beyond that. "I dont think worry is the right word," he said. "Anger may be a better word."

"We all recognize that 9/11 changed things, but I dont remember anybody rescinding the Constitution," Rotenberg continued. "When government officials take it on themselves to choose which laws theyre going to follow and which theyre going to ignore, they should be held accountable."

Recently, the White House has acknowledged approving surveillance of phone calls between the United States and foreign locations to target suspected terrorist activity; however there was no acknowledgement of approval for domestic spying by the NSA.

In response to eWEEKs request for a comment on this issue, NSA spokesperson Don Weber, in a prepared statement, said, "Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide. However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...