Curious about surveillance? FOIA has answers.

Many Americans are curious about electronic surveillance by the federal government. Conveniently, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has already helped provide some answers. Although much of the interest and attention arises from journalism in recent days (here, here, here, and here, and related stories), America has had various agencies conducting various forms of surveillance for various purposes for years. For over a decade, journalists have been using FOIA, among other means, to learn more about the surveillance capacities and activities of the federal government:

Q. Who, exactly, has been conducting surveillance?
Q. What kind of surveillance are we talking about?
Q. Who’s involved in this electronic surveillance?
Q. What do we know about surveillance and the law?
Q. What kind of oversight is there?
Q. What does surveillance cover? What do stories about surveillance reveal?
Q. Has surveillance affected the press?


Q. Who, exactly, has been conducting surveillance?
A. Recent coverage refers primarily to the NSA. But the FBI, DHS, and DOD have also been responsible for some forms and instances of surveillance.


Q. What kind of surveillance are we talking about?
A. At least millions of people, billions of contacts, and even more data. Quite possibly everything that has been transmitted via electronic network, perhaps since 2007, as Senators Feinstein and Chambliss said (“Transcript: Dianne Feinstein, Saxby Chambliss explain, defend NSA phone records program”, Washington Post, 6/6/13), possibly since 2001 (“NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls”, USA Today, 5/11/06).


Q. Who’s involved in this electronic surveillance?
A. Government agencies and officials, telecom companies, and technology companies.


Q. What do we know about surveillance and the law?
A. The public has learned some things about surveillance as a result of FOIA; the stories below represent a sampling of coverage in the last decade.


Q. What kind of oversight is there?
A. In theory, Congress, courts, agency inspectors general, and agency attorneys provide political, legal, and bureaucratic checks on surveillance.


Q. What does surveillance cover? What do stories about surveillance reveal?
A. Surveillance can cover people based on a range of activities, some illegal or worrisome; some legal and constitutionally-protected. And just because the government can conduct wide-ranging electronic surveillance doesn’t mean an end to in-person surveillance. Stories of surveillance are stories of us, the watchers and the watched.


Q. Has surveillance affected the press?
A. Yes.

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