An Internet privacy group has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to look into the government’s surveillance of phone records over the past seven years. Polls show Americans are divided over this issue.
The American public is split over whether the National Security Agency, or NSA, should continue phone and email surveillance to stop terrorists.
Some say the concerns are overblown; others maintain that what people do in the privacy of their homes and on the Internet should be their business and nobody else's.
A recent Quinnipiac survey shows a reversal in public opinion. Three years ago, Americans overwhelmingly supported anti-terrorism actions over civil liberties. Pollster Peter Brown says a slight majority now think those efforts are eroding freedoms.
"That’s a really big change and it’s significant,” says Brown.
But other polls show a majority of Americans - 58 percent - support the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data. The basic questions are these - is the surveillance relevant to a terrorist investigation? And, does the government monitor actual conversations and emails, or just look at who's involved?
Some argue it is not content but just metadata that is being collected by the government, and that it is not accurate to classify these activities as surveillance.
Others insist that people should decide for themselves whether to regard these efforts as surveillance or not.
Gary Schmitt studies security issues for the American Enterprise Institute. He supports NSA actions.
“It’s a difficult task because you have to collect an immense amount of data to stay ahead of the terrorist.”
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington decides how far the government can go, and the NSA must first make its argument in this court before listening to phone calls involving an American.
This, says Schmitt, prevents overreach.
“There are these kinds of layers of scrutiny that they go forward and the court again has the final say into whether there’s enough info relevant to particular case to a particular person.”
But the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says the court went too far when it made the Verizon Communications company provide its phone records on all Americans. EPIC filed an emergency petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the NSA’s surveillance.
Alan Butler is EPIC’s attorney.
“Our contention is it’s not possible that all call records of all Americans held by Verizon are relevant to an investigation.”
It’s not known if the Supreme Court will take up the case. In the meantime, Americans will continue to debate whether NSA surveillance goes too far.