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A program run by a top spy agency goes through phone records, which tell who was called and the length of the call. (Corbis / Splash News / Newscom)

Is Someone Watching You Text?

Americans react after learning that the government may be keeping track of their private calls

By Tyrus Cukavac | June 12 , 2013
<p>The National Security Agency collects information from numerous sources to try to stop terrorist plots. (Paul J. Richards / AFP / Newscom)</p>

The National Security Agency collects information from numerous sources to try to stop terrorist plots. (Paul J. Richards / AFP / Newscom)

Do your parents keep track of everyone you call on your cell phone? The U.S. government might. News reports have revealed that a top U.S. spy agency has been running massive information-gathering programs. Little is known about the classified (secret) programs, except that they track the phone calls and Internet usage of millions of people. President Barack Obama has defended the programs as part of the nation’s antiterrorism efforts.

Top-secret government documents were leaked, or released to the press without permission. They revealed that the telecommunications company Verizon provides the National Security Agency (NSA) with the phone records of millions of its customers. So far there is no evidence that the agency listens to people’s phone calls. But it does store information such as whom a person calls and how long the conversations last.

Some government officials say they need all of this information to keep the U.S. safe from terrorists. Ever since terrorists attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, agencies like the NSA have been given more power to protect the country. They have increased efforts to gather intelligence, or valuable secret information, that could help stop terrorists.

Another program that was revealed this week is called PRISM. It collects information about the Internet use of foreigners, such as their search history and the content of their e-mails. It is thought that major companies such as Facebook, Apple, and Google may also be providing data (information) to the NSA. But little is known for sure. Several of the companies deny providing the government with this data.

A RIGHT TO PRIVACY?

Many citizens are angry about the NSA programs. They believe that the government has violated their privacy, or their right to control information about themselves.

Critics say the programs violate principles in the Constitution. The Constitution is the law of the land and sets rules for the U.S. government. One of those rules is the Fourth Amendment, which protects American citizens from “unreasonable search and seizure.”

The Fourth Amendment limits the power of the government in most criminal investigations. For example, it requires the government to have a warrant (permission from a judge) to search a person’s home or listen to a person’s telephone conversations. Critics of the NSA’s programs say the Fourth Amendment requires the agency to get a warrant before it tracks the phone records of individuals.

DEFENDING DEFENSE

Government officials say they want to make sure that terrorist attacks like the ones on September 11 never happen again. The data collected by the NSA could tell experts if people are communicating with known terrorists and might give hints about possible attacks.

President Obama has strongly defended the programs. He says one of his top priorities is keeping America safe. He also says that people in Congress are monitoring the program to make sure no one misuses the information.

In a press conference last Friday, President Obama stressed, “It’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing.”

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