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What the U.S. Government Can and Can’t Legally Do Through NSA Snooping

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University of Florida professors Jon Mills and Clay Calvert, left to right, have this to say about NSA spying...
University of Florida professors Jon Mills and Clay Calvert, left to right, explain what the National Security Agency can and cannot do in collecting information while attempting to thwart terror attacks. Calvert also discussed the media's role during the past week of NSA leaks.

National Security Agency officials have come under fire in recent days for the news leak about its surveillance program, in which millions of Americans’ phone records and Internet activity are collected.

NSA Director General Keith Alexander told senators this week the program was necessary to protect the American people and has helped thwart dozens of possible terrorist threats.

Though media critics and legal experts say this may be true, there is concern that privacy rights are being violated.

Jon Mills, University of Florida Law professor and dean emeritus,  said while controversial, the program may have operated within constitutional limits.

“To view phone records, that is, just the phone number and the destination, it’s the same as email,” he said. “That type of surveillance is authorized. What isn’t authorized is looking at content.”

Clay Calvert, professor and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, said there are personal ramifications from the NSA’s data mining.

“The idea is that by tracking phone numbers of who you’ve  called,” Calvert said, “they can back trace it to the people that you’re in contact with, how frequently you’re in contact with (them), and if those individuals in question have some compromising ties of their own.”

“Essentially, it could roll down on you,” he said.

While the NSA’s director divulged some information on Wednesday, even more important details likely were discussed in a classified briefing with the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

Because the public does not have direct access to the information, Calvert said people have to trust their representatives to look out for their best interests.

“The members of Congress who do hear that info, we have to trust them to serve as a check in some way on the NSA… If some members of Congress don’t like what they hear, you can bet they’ll hold a press conference about it.”

If the government went too far in its surveillance program, Mills said, people should be able to take that issue to court.

The problem arises in actually being aware of that overreach.

“If there are actually violations, litigation is the right thing to do,” he said. “If somebody’s personal privacy has been invaded and they know about it, they need to stand up for those rights.”

And as the discussion rages on stateside, the person responsible for leaking the classified information, Edward Snowden, is still in Hong Kong.

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