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The potential impact of the NSA's collecting of phone records

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss speak to members of the media about the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting phone records June 6.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss speak to members of the media about the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting phone records June 6.
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On Wednesday, the UK newspaper The Guardian published this headline: "NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily." Under an on-going top-secret court order requested by the FBI, it turns out, the National Security Agency requires Verizon's business division to give the NSA the records of all the phone calls made in its system everyday.

An unnamed official in the Obama administration defended the program, telling the media that the order does not give NSA the right to listen in on phone calls but instead to collect massive amounts of "metadata," including phone numbers and lengths of calls. In a press conference this morning, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) told reporters, "There have been approximately 100 plots and also arrests made since 2009 by the FBI. I do not know to what extent metadata was used or if it was used, but I do know this: That terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence."

Feinstein also indicated that the program to gather this metadata has been in place for seven years. Republican Senator from Georgia, Saxby Chambliss, confirmed that lawmakers have known about the program for a while now, adding, "The information that they’re really looking for is on the other end of the call. It’s are they in contact, is somebody in contact with somebody that we know to be a known terrorist. And that’s why it’s metadata only." Neither senator could say whether or not the secret program extended to other phone companies.

But not everyone is on board with the program. Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted: "In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" Privacy groups are up in arms, concerned that the records of millions of Americans are being indiscriminately collected, regardless of whether they're suspected of wrongdoing or not. Regardless, the revelation about the NSA program opens a Pandora's box of questions about privacy and security.

What is the NSA doing with the data collected? How is it processed? Where is it stored? How far-reaching is the program? Are Americans comfortable giving up this level of privacy in exchange for protection against terrorism?

Kenneth Cukier, Co-Author, “Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think” (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013); he is also the Data Editor at the Economist magazine.

Robert Turner, Law Professor and Associate Director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia

Mike Thompson, Democratic Congressman for California’s Fifth District (district includes all of Napa and parts of Contra Costa, Lake, Solano and Sonoma Counties); member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where he serves as Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis and Counterintelligence

Peter Bibring, Senior Staff Attorney with ACLU Southern California

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