Surveillance State Keys Turned Over to New President


Surveillance-KeyholeBy Ashley Gorski and Patrick Toomey

On January 20, President Obama will hand Donald Trump the keys to the surveillance state. Not only will Trump have the NSA’s incredibly powerful technological tools at his disposal, but he’ll also have the benefit of the overbroad and unconstitutional surveillance authorities embraced by the Obama administration — authorities that give tremendous discretion to executive branch officials.

These spying powers have long been cause for concern because they violate our core rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. But when wielded by a man who invited Russia to hack his political opponent, who reportedly eavesdropped on his own hotel guests, and who has called for expanded surveillance of Americans and especially American Muslims, they are all the more frightening. Fortunately, there are several ways to fight back against the surveillance state, including concrete steps you can take to protect yourself and your communications.

Here are two of the sweeping surveillance powers that President Obama is going to hand over to President Trump:

Executive Order 12333 is the primary authority under which the NSA conducts surveillance, and it encompasses a dizzying array of warrantless, high-tech spying programs. While much of this spying occurs outside the United States and is ostensibly directed at foreigners, vast quantities of Americans’ communications are nonetheless vacuumed up in the dragnet. That’s because, in today’s interconnected world, Americans’ communications are frequently sent, routed, or stored abroad — where they may be collected, often in bulk, in the course of the NSA’s spying activities.

For example, according to recent news reports, the NSA has relied on Executive Order 12333 to:

Despite its breadth, surveillance under Executive Order 12333 is not subject to meaningful oversight by the courts or by Congress.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the government to warrantlessly monitor Americans’ international emails, web-browsing activities, and phone calls with the assistance of companies like Facebook, Google, AT&T, and Verizon. The government relies on Section 702 to carry out mass surveillance on U.S. soil, including both the “PRISM” and “Upstream” programs revealed by Edward Snowden.

The law permits the government to spy on communications when one party to a phone call or internet communication is a foreigner abroad targeted by intelligence officials — even if an American is on the other end of the line. Surveillance under Section 702 may be conducted for many purposes — not just counterterrorism — and it may target people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

The government collects hundreds of millions of communications under this law, which are then stored in NSA, CIA, and FBI databases. Despite the fact that the government obtains these communications without warrants, it still uses them in ordinary criminal investigations, betraying one of the core purposes of the Fourth Amendment.

The ACLU is currently challenging Section 702 surveillance in civil and criminal cases, and we’re also litigating Freedom of Information Act suits to learn more about how the government interprets and implements its surveillance powers.

In the meantime, what can you do to protect yourself against these spying activities and others? There are a number of basic steps you can take to improve your digital privacy and safeguard your data. At a minimum, we recommend that you:

  • Use messaging and phone apps that employ end-to-end encryption
  • Promptly install software updates to patch vulnerabilities
  • Use two-factor authentication to protect your most important online accounts
  • Password-protect your phone.

We’ve described these steps and others in greater detail here. The Intercept has also recently published a guide to surveillance self-defense.

We also urge you to get involved in the political process. For instance, Section 702 is set to expire next year, and Congress is already holding hearings on reauthorization. By signing up for ACLU action alerts, you can easily reach out to legislators as they consider whether to rein in President Trump’s NSA.

While there are still many unknowns about the Trump administration, one thing is clear: In the coming months, we’ll need you standing alongside us in the fight for surveillance reform.

Ashley Gorski and Patrick Toomey are Staff Attorneys with the ACLU National Security Project


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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18 thoughts on “Surveillance State Keys Turned Over to New President”

  1. Alan Miller

    So the problem isn’t the policy, it’s who will have the key.  My guess is this article would not have been written had Hillary been elected.  I’m not a big phan of Patriot Act.  My point is this “person not policy” politics is getting old and it’s only been a couple of weeks since the election.  Scary policies are just that, let’s not speculate on what “might” happen with them under a new President, let’s stick to the issues themselves.

    1. Davis Progressive

      this has been an issue of growing concern during the obama administration.  so i disagree with your premise.  that said, yes, trump is much scarier than anyone else.

      1. South of Davis

        DP wrote:

        > this has been an issue of growing concern

        > during the obama administration

        Yet most on the left were giving Obama a pass as he listened to phone conversations, deported Mexicans and killed Muslim kids with drones.

        It must be nice to now be able to talk about these areas of “growing concern” again now that a Republican is in the white house.

        > yes, trump is much scarier than anyone else.

        With his big mouth, little hands, orange skin and squirrel fur hairpiece he is a scary looking guy…

        1. South of Davis

          Interesting that DP had to link to a foreign paper to find something negative about Obama.  I cut and pasted the headline to Google news to see if CNN or the NYT covered the story (I had not heard about) and most of what came up were stories bashing trump like this one:

          The ACLU Counts the Ways Trump Would Violate Civil Liberties

          P.S. I would be impressed if either Trump or Obama pardons Snowden

        2. tribeUSA

          Yes, Trump’s victory signals a breathtakingly radical shift in public perception of the combover (or combover look); given the well-established precedent that the candidate underneath the best hair generally carries the election. Hillary’s hair; though dyed and painstakingly coiffed, has obviously nontheless been thicker and generally more robust than the Trump combover; and yet the combover carried the day.

          This signals a shift in public acceptance of the combover, which I as an increasingly hair-challenged 50-year old, am profoundly grateful for. I will do whatever I can to point out the bright side of Trump to make him ever more popular; so that the combover can carry the day each day and perhaps even become a mark of distinction and sophistication that ‘trumps’ all other mens hairstyles, and I need not parade a markedly balding and thoroughly unremarkable near-naked dome about town.

          A bonus of increased surveillance is that those critical of comb-overs will come to realize it is wise to muzzle such unjust and bigoted criticism during the Trump years–long live the comb-over! (until there is nothing left to comb over with)

        3. Tia Will


          Yet most on the left were giving Obama a pass as he listened to phone conversations, deported Mexicans and killed Muslim kids with drones.”

          Who “on the left” was giving Obama “a pass” on the “eves dropping” or use of drones against “Muslim kids”. The most critical articles I heard on these practices were coming from what you likely consider to be “left wing media”, NPR, NYT, Slate. Just because you are not reading or listening does not mean that they are not reporting and criticizing. Please correct me if you do not consider all of these to be left wing.

          Also given that as one of his campaign promises, the current president elect stated explicitly that he would target the families of suspected terrorists ( I presume that would include their wives and children) and would bomb the “h….” out of them ( presumably including civilians being used as shields) I am having a hard time seeing what you find preferable about the president elects choosing to target children to that of the current president.


        4. South of Davis

          Tia wrote:

          > Who “on the left” was giving Obama “a pass” on the “eves dropping”

          Can you post a link to a NYT or NPR story on the ACLU suing Obama the NSA (I looked and didn’t find one)?

          I read the NYT and listen to NPR daily and I have never met anyone that does not agree with me that both the NYT and NPR like Obama more than Trump.

          Just like Fox and the OC Register pretend to be “fair and balanced” while spinning every story to fit the RNC talking points the NYT and NPR so the same thing to fit the DNC talking points (and as we have seen from the recent Wikileaks work directly with the DNC to stay “on message”)…

          1. David Greenwald

            I think the question is what you are considering “the left.” I would argue that the left supported Sanders, not Clinton.

  2. Jerry Waszczuk

    These spying powers have long been cause for concern because they violate our core rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. 
    I don’t see how the sweeping surveillance powers that President Obama is going to hand over to President Trump will affect my freedom of expression or freedom of association . What I see so far only Don Shor is affecting my  and others freedom of expression not  Obama or Trump. Who is afraid of this sweeping surveillance power and why ?  In the era of Internet and digital media everybody are  defenseless and vulnerable. The ACLU lawyers  will win the lawsuit but it will not  change anything. Most  people do not  care about the Executive Order 12333 and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act anyway by using their cell phones and internet.

  3. Alan Miller

    What I see so far only Don Shor is affecting my  and others freedom of expression not  Obama or Trump.

    I don’t know if this was meant to be a humor line or dead serious, but a stream of hot tea just shot out of my mouth.

    1. Jerry Waszczuk


      Polish thoughts and  freedom  of expression on DV . Don hurt yourself  with hot tea.  The Obama Care will not help you .  Seriously, I don’t care much about the  Executive Order 12333 and Section 702 because I have nothing to hide . The political correctness in USA is beyond and above the Executive Order 12333 and Section 702 than why bother to think about .

  4. Napoleon Pig IV

    Since Obama seems to be defaulting on the opportunity, perhaps Trump will award Edward Snowden his well-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    May bright young kids grow up with the skills and will to subvert the surveillance state in all its evil manifestations. Oink!

    1. Jerry Waszczuk

      Napoleon Pig IV

      Maybe Obama will pardon Snowden in the  last minute.  The surveillance state is already in place for long time and  Trump is  at least honest about.  The Homeland Security which  which has same meaning as as  the Soviet’s KGB (in translation )  and was formed in November 2002 .It  was not  the Trump’s  idea . HS  is the  centralized surveillance and invigilation big brother .   Scary , but  due to globalization and   the New World Order   something similar to  Brexit could only  change the course .

      1. hpierce

        2002… that would have been the ‘conservative’ Republican Bush’s admin., right?  Yeah Obama, the Democrats, etc., should definitely bear responsibility…

        Starting to understand “reverse Polish notation”… hp (hewlitt packard) had it right!


        1. Jerry Waszczuk


          Is no different who is in the White House . For example,  take into consideration  the  massive deportation of illegals by the Obama’s  administration.  People did not know much about and most likely did not care to know about. Trump is taking about than he got slammed .

  5. Tia Will


    For an objective view of coverage one might start with which presents an objective timeline


    which presents both Obama’s point of view about surveillance programs but also gives at least equal voice to criticisms of these programs

    or this

    which also is a balanced presentation of program changes that Obama was making but also of the criticism of the limitations of the programs by a number of groups and individuals who were advocating for more sweeping changes and limitations on surveillance than Obama was presenting.

    I offer these as illustrations that the NYT has not backed away from coverage of the criticisms of Obama’s approach to domestic surveillance.

    However, I did not fail to notice that you moved the bar. You went from:

     “on the left” was giving Obama “a pass”: to

    Can you post a link to a NYT or NPR story on the ACLU suing Obama the NSA (I looked and didn’t find one)?

    I can find many articles and opinion pieces in which Obama’s approach to surveillance was criticized, but since I suspect ( cannot prove) that you already knew that, you decided to shift the question to specifically the ACLU suing. Nice attempt at sleight of hand.


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