June 12, 2013

With all the news of the past week about the disclosure of Verizon phone records and the government’s monitoring of Internet companies, many are likely to feel overwhelmed and resigned. But that is the wrong response. There is a clear problem that needs to be addressed: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is an inadequate check on the government’s demands for personal information [“Challenges blunted by secrecy of surveillance measures,” news article, June 8].

The FISC provides no meaningful oversight. In 2012, the government presented 1,789 applications to conduct electronic surveillance. According to the Justice Department, “The FISC did not deny any applications in whole or in part.” The government also made 212 applications for access to business records, the provision that forced Verizon to turn over the records of its customers. Again, according to the Justice Department, the FISC did not deny any, in whole or in part.

The court has also exceeded its statutory purpose. No longer tethered to the mission of enabling the monitoring of foreign agents or the collection of foreign intelligence, the FISC’s enormous surveillance authorities are now directed to the daily activities of Americans.

It is time to restore oversight of surveillance authority in the United States. It may be the case that the government needs access to vast amounts of telephone records and the user data held by Internet firms. But that argument can no longer be made to a court where there is no meaningful review and too little public accountability.

Marc Rotenberg, Washington

The writer is president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.