Why a government watchdog says your phone calls are private, but your e-mails are not


(Trevor Paglen / The Intercept)

Last night, an independent oversight panel defended the NSA's practice of collecting e-mails and other electronic communications between Americans and foreigners. In a 191-page report, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said that although the controversial PRISM program (among others) could be unconstitutional, it was mostly fine.

Privacy advocates have been quick to criticize the report. Here's why they're so upset, and it's not just because the PCLOB sided with the government: The oversight board apparently thinks collecting call records is out-of-bounds, but somehow sifting through the actual content of your e-mails and Skype calls is A-OK.

If that discrepancy strikes you as a little backwards, you're probably not alone. Internet-based communications let you do far more than a simple phone call. Yet the PCLOB believes the former actually deserve weaker protections than the latter. Administration officials have made it a point to say that nobody is listening in on your phone calls. But that may be small comfort when electronic communications have become such a dominant part of U.S. work and personal life.

The PCLOB report expressed a high degree of confidence that the government had sufficient built-in protections to prevent abuse of the data.

"The Board has seen no trace of any such illegitimate activity associated with the program, or any attempt to intentionally circumvent legal limits," the report reads. "But the applicable rules potentially allow a great deal of private information about U.S. persons to be acquired by the government."

The double standard for phone calls and online communications could well be traced to a decades-long tradition of granting e-mails second-class status when it comes to privacy. In criminal investigations, police officers can currently summon the contents of your e-mail if it remained unopened in your inbox for more than 180 days. There's a legislative push to change that rule so that searching a person's e-mail would always require a warrant, at least when it comes to law enforcement.

Of course, undermining that proposal is the fact that federal agencies such as the FBI can perform warrantless searches of e-mails anyway, via a "backdoor" process that goes through the NSA. But that search activity takes place amid a permissive legal environment concerning electronic communications.

We've got decades of legal and cultural norms against eavesdropping on phone calls. Wiretapping is a huge deal. The Internet, as we know it, hasn't been around long enough to develop those same protections. But it arguably deserves them.

Read the full PCLOB report below.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | July 2