WASHINGTON — You wake up in the morning and reach for your cellphone to read e-mail messages. You post your day’s plans to Facebook, call a friend, and search for the address of a lunch spot. You drive on streets tracked by security cameras, and your cellphone emits signals providing your location.
All of that information, including the credit card payment for the lunch itself, could theoretically be gathered, sorted, and reviewed by the federal government.
This week’s disclosures that the government reportedly tracks cellphone records and taps into Internet databases are only the latest evidence that American society — increasingly reliant on social media, “cloud”-based computer files, and ubiquitous cellphones — is being tracked like never before, partly due to efforts to stop terrorism. And even though the government typically needs search warrants to ferret out the most personal information, the warrant process has become more secretive.
All of this is happening as the debate over how far the government should go in spying on the citizenry has whipsawed over the past several weeks.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, top lawmakers were aghast that more was not done to prevent the Tsarnaev brothers from allegedly launching their attacks. Now there has been an uproar that the government is invading privacy rights. All of this has renewed debate about whether the government has created the correct balance.
President Obama summed up the quandary on Friday when he felt compelled to say at a press conference that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” But he cautioned that concessions must be made at a time when the federal government’s top priority is to protect the country from terrorist attacks.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said. “You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Obama and other government officials stressed that the phone-tracking program allows them to access only fairly basic metadata, which contains things such as the phone number called or the length of the conversation. In order to actually listen in on the calls or read the e-mails, the government would need to gain another court order.
But Mark Rumold, a staff lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the number dialed, the length of the call, and the time and place from which it was dialed offer “an intimate portrait about the citizens of this country” and that efforts that include surveillance of regular citizens are growing.
“I’m not suggesting that every American has been targeted by the NSA,” Rumold said, referring to the National Security Agency. “But they have the ability to call up and target every American.”
Another program, known as PRISM, reportedly mines consumer data from Internet providers, which the Obama administration has said tracks only foreigners.
Meanwhile, the FBI is working on merging its civil and criminal fingerprint databases, meaning innocent people who go through background checks as part of getting a job would now be included, Rumold said.
The NSA can go deeper, using subpoenas approved in secret to gather more specific information.
“You don’t have to be a suspect,” said James Bamford, author of “The Shadow Factory” and two other books about the NSA. “It could be anybody who mentions the wrong combination of words or is communicating with somebody who might be communicating with somebody because the concentric circle seems to go around two or three circles.”
Separate from these government programs, law enforcement agencies can go to the courts and try to obtain subpoenas to gain data about an individual, such as Facebook posts, credit card charges, or e-mails. For example, cellphone carriers received 1.3 million requests in 2011 from law enforcement regarding calls, text messages, and location, according to a congressional report.
The newly disclosed NSA programs, meanwhile, obtain information after a request is made to secret court, and companies are prohibited from telling its users that their information has been given to the government.
Many of the companies involved in the programs, which have been classified and were unknown until news reports exposed them last week, said that they were following the law.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg denied on Friday that the company was part of the PRISM program and said it does not give the government direct access to its servers. “When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law,” Zuckerberg said in a posting on his Facebook page.
Google, the largest online search engine, said in a statement that it had not heard of the NSA’s PRISM program until it was reported this week by the British newspaper the Guardian and the Washington Post. “We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law,” Google said.
Defenders of the NSA programs say they are necessary tools.
“We’re damn lucky as a country to have the kinds of technological capabilities we have to learn things about people who are planning to attack us, that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” said former senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent. “I’m very grateful we have the capability to do what NSA does for us because it protects our lives.”
Lieberman, who helped form the nation’s homeland security structure after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said he was briefed on at least two attacks that were thwarted as a result of the newly disclosed government programs. The government viewed e-mail and phone traffic that made them suspicious and, after gaining a court order, allowed them to obtain more information. Intelligence officials were able to take “a very small piece of metadata” and follow up with connections to a phone number of a known suspect, Lieberman said.
A look at how the secret court that oversees the gathering of electronic intelligence for national security purposes was established in 1978 demonstrates how its purpose and methodology have changed, including in ways that were not intended by its sponsors.
The court was established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which was written by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Edward Levi, attorney general for President Ford.
The court was made responsible for signing off on requests to gather national security information inside the United States in the event there was suspicion that an individual or individuals might be connected to a foreign plot against the United States.
After it was disclosed that the NSA was engaging in warrantless spying, Congress modified the FISA law in 2008 to give the government the greater tools it said it needed to prevent terrorist attacks but also bring them under the law and ensure the privacy of innocent Americans.
Among the changes was a broader definition of “electronic surveillance” to include so-called “metadata” — trillions of phone calls and e-mails each day — that could be analyzed by special computer software to identify patterns of activity like communications between the United States and a known terrorist overseas that might indicate a plot.
The law stipulated that the government would have to return to the court for permission to look at any specific communications and identities of Americans involved.
The modifications passed by Congress also granted the George W. Bush administration’s request to give telecommunications firms who cooperated with the NSA immunity from lawsuits, thus making it easier for the NSA to recruit those companies to share information.
Retired Admiral Stansfield Turner, who served as director of the CIA when the surveillance courts were first established, said in an interview Friday that he believes the oversight process, even though it takes place out of public view, is rigorous in protecting civil liberties. He noted that the judges appointed to the court are all federal court judges normally dealing with cases in the civilian justice system.
He took issue with assertions that it is simply serves as a rubber stamp, reportedly rarely modifying the requests of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Asked if has concerns about the broad nature of the newly disclosed domestic surveillance program, Turner said he believes the structure in place is a “good compromise.”
“I think there are enough checks and balances that if it got out of control someone would blow the whistle,” he said, “and there would be a congressional investigation.”
However, Kennedy opposed the modifications to the FISA Act approved by Congress in 2008, saying they granted too much latitude to the executive branch.
“The rules governing electronic surveillance affect every American,” Kennedy said on the Senate floor in December 2007. “They are the only thing that stands between the freedom of Americans to make a phone call, send an e-mail, and search the Internet, and the ability of the government to listen in on that call, read that e-mail, review that Google search.”Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Noah Bierman can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.