06/26/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

NSA 101

The recent controversy surrounding PRISM and efforts made by the National Security Agency and FBI to monitor Internet traffic continues to expand, as Google filed a legal motion earlier this month in hopes of lifting a gag order preventing the company from publicizing information requested by the government. Growing public concern about the privacy of electronic information leaves many Internet users questioning how and why the government retrieves Internet data unbeknownst to users. The questions and answers below clarify current U.S. intelligence surveillance law and its impact on companies and private citizens.

Q. What is FISA?

A. Originally the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the legislation outlines procedures for the government to electronically and physically monitor individuals engaged in international terrorism against the United States or persons engaging in espionage for foreign powers and governments. Important Amendments to the Act include the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012. Ultimately, the current law regulates government intelligence surveillance efforts inside the U.S and allows agencies to collect electronic data in order to help prevent acts of terrorism, assassinations, sabotage and espionage against the U.S. and its citizens. Under FISA, a specialized court comprised of federal district court judges hears warrant applications from government agencies in order to obtain electronic information from individuals suspected of terrorism and/or espionage.

Q. Why are corporations and private citizens showing increased concern about FISA?

A. Earlier this month, the Guardian and Washington Post broke news about Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old intelligence contractor and whistleblower who worked on a top-secret government initiative called PRISM. The program allows intelligence officials to directly access the central servers of nine of the leading Internet companies in the U.S. in order to retrieve emails, Internet logs, search histories, documents and other electronic data, as well as acquire targeted communications without court orders or service provider requests. Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Facebook were all named in a classified 41-slide PowerPoint presentation reviewing the scope of the project.

Q. How are PRISM and FISA connected?

A. FISA includes well-known and long-standing legislation governing U.S. counterintelligence and surveillance efforts. PRISM, however, represents a classified government program used to access Internet provider servers for collecting electronic data. Section 702 of the FISA Act authorizes government actions such as those applied by the PRISM program.

Q. Why are companies prevented from speaking about the warrants they receive under FISA?

A. Companies that receive warrants for Internet data are also placed under gag orders preventing them from disclosing any and all details related to data requests. Google reports that FISA court motions even prevent them for confirming or denying receipt of court orders. Google's recent motion filed in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court references the First Amendment and the right to free speech in order to divulge the number of national security requests the company receives by the government.

Q. How does FISA impact the average U.S. citizen?

A. For the most part, FISA does not impact the average Internet user. Theoretically, the program is designed to investigate acts of espionage or potential terrorists. However, recent concerns about umbrella surveillance legislation highlight issues regarding how much information government agencies may access without warrants and how the decisions for warrants are granted. Ultimately, Internet users must always thoughtfully consider how easily the information they access or distribute online may be seen by others, including government agencies.

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