NSA National Surveillance Agency

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To know the NSA is not to love the NSA (Zegart). The National Surveillance Agency (NSA) is responsible for protecting us from terrorist attacks. However, while most citizens only see the surface of what it takes to protect us from terrorist attacks, others see it is far deeper than that. The NSA has secrets, fans, critics, and they have your life in their hands (rhetorically speaking). The NSA is useful, but the way they do things is questionable. A few research questions I have are: is the NSA useful to everyone, or just the government, and are the things they do necessary?

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Timothy Edgar, a former national security agent and the author of the article The Good News About Spying, is a supporter of the NSA’s work. He says in his article that though the public thought the NSA wasn’t doing their job, Obama was putting everything he could into the spying being changed after Edward Snowden leaked the information about the NSA.

In 2013, at Obama’s direction, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) established a website for the intelligence community, IC on the Record, where previously secret documents are posted for all to see. These are not decades-old files about Cold War spying, but recent slides used at recent NSA training sessions, accounts of illegal wiretapping after the 9/11 attacks, and what had been highly classified opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about ongoing surveillance programs (Edgar).

The NSA apparently has been trying to get better with their spying over time. Obama has made more changes than with just US citizens, such as foreigners living under our roof; these detailed rules he made will go for ALL nationalities. Something interesting about these detailed rules, as Edgar states, These rules, which came out in January 2015, mark the first set of guidelines for intelligence agencies ordered by a U.S. presidentor any world leaderthat explicitly protect foreign citizens’ personal information in the course of intelligence operations. Being the first world leader to put something in place like that is actually quite impressive.

Speaking of foreign, Europeans believe that their government protects their privacy more than the US does with ours. Edgar states, Although Europe has stronger regulations limiting what private companies (such as Google and Facebook) can do with personal data, citizens are granted comparatively little protection against surveillance by government agencies. European human rights law requires no court approval for intelligence surveillance of domestic targets, as U.S. law has since 1978. Sometimes we just overreact and choose not to support something like this because we aren’t behind it or we just don’t acknowledge that it is going on. Which leads me to my next point.

To know the NSA is not to love the NSA (Zegart). Though we can ignore the bad things the NSA does, we can also choose to input ourselves into the issue to try and resolve it. To explain this a little better, Amy Zegart, a senior fellow for Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies (Amy Zegart), and Marshall Erwin, a senior staff analyst at Mozilla (Marshall Erwin), have written an article called Bringing the NSA in from the cold: Americans need to be convinced the secret agency is working for their good–and that any privacy trade-offs are worth it. Summed up, it is basically letting us know that even if we do not agree with what the NSA is doing, we have to get over it. It says that we have misconceptions about the NSA. They made a poll for people to take to test their knowledge on the NSA’s work. Out of the respondents of the poll, 43% could correctly identify James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence (Zegart). 74% could identify Miley Cyrus as the person who twerked at the MTV Music Awards (Zegart). Common misconceptions by citizens are that the NSA keeps recordings of your phone calls and they read your emails. This source says that is simply not true and we are focused more on celebrities than we are with something that helps our country, as the reference to the poll above. Also, the more people know about the NSA doesn’t mean they are going to favor their policies, and it says to know the NSA is not to love the NSA. The NSA is doing is worth it in the end, whether it is legal or not.

I’m going to backtrack to the first source I used. Our former president, Obama, has taken the first steps to solving the surveillance issues, but the government itself needs to take the rest of them. With this being said, Timothy Edgar states that we need to increase transparency within the intelligence community as the first step. With greater transparency, intelligence agencies can stay one step ahead of future leakers and earn back the trust of a skeptical public (Edgar). Global privacy should be their next step, while protecting other countries’ citizens with our safeguards. Partnering with our allies to increase transparency will, in long-term, help the U.S. When we help other countries solve their government problems, they can help us do the same; then it becomes less likely that our allies will turn on us.
Updating our spying programs is also on the NSA’s agenda. An example of these programs is one they call PRISM. The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 gives the NSA authority to use PRISM. That law allows the government to obtain secret court orders targeting communications that include foreign participants of interest to the NSA with the compelled assistance of U.S. companies (Edgar).

Timothy realizes that allowing interception of ALL communications is not a good idea, therefore, reform on strong encryption is advisable to maintain security. He also says that Obama needs to listen to the experts of this field, He should reject any proposal to mandate backdoors in secure communications systems, and order national security agencies not to pressure companies to do so (Edgar). Since 2013, Obama has made attempts at reforming the system. He put in an order for surveillance reforms that are most certainly needed and they’ve shown to be quite substantial.

While all the things the NSA can be great, there are major disadvantages to having a surveillance agency.

There is a few things that Edward Snowden taught us about the NSA and judging by these things, the NSA is useful, but the way they conduct their surveillance is controversial. These facts are from the article called 17 disturbing things Snowden has taught us (so far) written by Angus West, a journalist for PRI (Public Radio International).

The government started collecting phone call data in 2001.

The NSA then started using PRISM, the thing I mentioned earlier, to collect internet data from people’s devices. COMPLETE invasion of privacy.

They used Boundless Informant to analyze all the metadata collected and they also used a global heat map to show where the most data was coming from.

The US is hacking China! Of all countries, they choose the most populous one.

The NSA also spied on European citizens. So now it’s not just China, but Europe too. Not a country, a whole continent this time.

The NSA spied on Brazilians too! Before Obama got a chance for a one-on-one meeting with Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, to discuss the spying of Dilma, more NSA disclosures were leaked. They revealed that the NSA had targeted Petrobras, which is Brazil’s oil company.

Even Great Britain has their own surveillance agency. The Government Communications Headquarters, also known as the GCHQ; obtains real-time call readings from targeted people and read their emails without notice.

The NSA can use information gathered from citizens up to 5 years without a warrant but only if the info is relevant to preventing national security threats and the person’s identity has to stay anonymous. This might have created some problems.

The NSA, their employees, and US private contractors have access to GCHQ databases because of the UK’s help; so basically, we help the UK and the UK helps us with spying.

There is a lot of information that Snowden has stored for the public that we don’t know yet. Snowden said if anything happens to him, the rest of the files he has on the NSA will be leaked.

We do know, however, that 38 embassies were hacked, including EU Embassy in Washington.

The NSA keeps your contacts from emails.

The NSA was spying on the US allies.

The NSA is building a quantum computer to get through encryptions; remember, transparency.

The NSA collects our text messages everyday.

Finally, the NSA hacks your SIM cards; so basically your phones.

Mass surveillance makes us far less likely to communicate openly with our friends and loved ones, and it chills participation in the marketplace of ideas (Gorski). Not communicating with others poses a threat to humanity, because communication is life. Without it, nothing would happen or get done.

When you search something on the World Wide Web (WWW), you get caught in the NSA’s fish trap. They look at your browsing history, what you look at, and who you talk to. How the NSA’s Mass Internet Spying Poisons Society was written by Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney in the ACLU’s National Security Project, and a graduate of Yale. She states in her article that if you have used the WWW, you are not free from surveillance. Though the NSA says they only look for terrorism before it strikes, they actually look at everything you do. … it is copying and sifting through the contents of essentially everyone’s international communications (and even some domestic ones), looking for information about its targets. it does all of this without a warrant (Gorski). After gathering the information from people’s phones and computers, they use a selector to search keywords with what they are looking for specifically. If you happen to be doing a project that involved you conducting research on the president and ISIS, you can expect Secret Service to be at your door for you wanting to harm the president.

The fourth amendment of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States, states that we are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. The NSA going through our things looking for ‘interesting data’ is a violation of the fourth amendment. According to Gorski, the government can’t simply open all our letters to look for potentially interesting ones. There’s no question that this would violate the Constitution, and there’s no reason to treat Americans’ private internet communications differently. Treating our freedoms like they are a joke is not okay, especially if it compromises privacy. The fourth amendment simply does not matter to the NSA, because they keep spying on us daily.

… the NSA conducts upstream surveillance under the purported authority of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. the NSA can engage in certain warrantless surveillance of Americans who communicate with targets abroad. It also says that the NSA can target nearly any foreigner without suspicion of wrongdoing and without judicial review.

The FISA Act of 2008 has not been changed, however, the people tried to change it. Section 702– authorizes the Intelligence Community to target the communications of non-U.S. persons located outside the United States for foreign intelligence purposes (FISA)– of that act has expired. There was a recent vote earlier this year about changing the act. The results; the program will continue to spy despite the complaints of citizens and Snowden’s leak. The US House of Representatives has approved a law allowing US spy agencies to continue intercepting Americans’ private communications (Surveillance). Now that this has been set for another few years, the House of Representatives have time to think about the things they share, text, and search, and if they like being spied upon.

The NSA spying on us is also breaking the first amendment: freedom of expression and association. When we express our opinions online, it may be seen as a threat or something related to crime or terrorism, even if that was not the intention of it. They have taken away our trust from everyone. The Internet should provide a space in which we can read, write, and explore without fear of unwarranted government scrutiny (Gorski). She’s right; the internet is supposed to be a place to express our opinions, share things about our life, research things, and be ourselves. How can we do that if we can’t trust where the information goes? The answer is simple: either don’t care and continue on, or go off the grid.

In conclusion, the NSA is useful to everyone in the sense of protecting us from terrorism, but it is only useful to the government in the sense of our privacy being invaded. Most things they do are not necessary. Such as: hacking other countries’ citizens as well as our own, keeping our contacts and text messages, and breaking our rights as citizens (Amendments one and four). Always make sure you know your rights and test the government if you feel they are being infringed. As far as the usefulness of the NSA, it can be described with a common template question we are all asked at some point in our lives:

How useful do you find the NSA?

Extremely useful

Very useful

Moderately useful

Slightly useful

Not useful at all


  1. Amy Zegart. Hoover Institution, www.hoover.org/profiles/amy-zegart.
  2. Ashley Gorski. American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu, www.aclu.org/bio/ashley-gorski.
  3. Does Anyone Else Feel Like Their Being Watched? & Like Shar Comment Central Intelligence Agency CIA *They’re St Like Reply | Politics Meme on SIZZLE. SIZZLE, onsizzle.com/i/does-anyone-else-feel-like-their-being-watched-like-18540048.
  4. Edgar, Timothy H. The Good News About Spying. Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 1 Oct. 2015, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2015-04-13/good-news-about-spying.
  5. FISA Section 702. U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, intelligence.house.gov/fisa-702/.
  6. Gorski, Ashley. How the NSA’s Mass Internet Spying Poisons Society. American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu, 24 Sept. 2015, www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance/how-nsas-mass-internet-spying-poisons-society.
  7. Marshall Erwin. Center for Internet and Society, 10 Jan. 2017, cyberlaw.stanford.edu/about/people/marshall-erwin.
  8. Surveillance Act Passed despite Trump ‘Abuse’ Tweet. BBC News, BBC, 11 Jan. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42656427.
  9. Timothy Edgar. 2018 – Military-Discretionary-Spending | Costs of War, watson.brown.edu/people/fellow/edgar.
  10. West, Angus. 17 Disturbing Things Snowden Has Taught Us (so Far). Public Radio International, GlobalPost, 9 July 2013, 4:30pm, www.pri.org/stories/2013-07-09/17-disturbing-things-snowden-has-taught-us-so-far.
  11. Zegart, Amy B., and Marshall Erwin. “Bringing the NSA in from the cold: Americans need to be convinced the secret agency is working for their good–and that any privacy trade-offs are worth it.” Hoover Digest, no. 2, 2014, p. 63+. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A373680579/OVIC?u=txshracd2487&sid=OVIC&xid=cb6641b6. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.
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NSA National Surveillance Agency. (2019, Dec 10). Retrieved August 9, 2022 , from

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