It was revealed earlier this month that the NSA is spying on non-Americans and Americans alike. After the initial reports, the Obama administration and other lawmakers argued the programs were necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, but didn't elaborate. Now the government is starting to elaborate, but only just a little bit.
A new report published over the weekend says that the NSA and its spying programs helped stop numerous terrorist plots in the U.S. and 20 other countries. The agency won't say which countries those plots may have originated from, and have only released details regarding one plot in which it claims collecting phone records helped to stop an attack.
The plot referenced in the report was a planned attack to blow up the New York City subway in 2009. The agency says that its collection of phone records helped to arrest co-conspirator Najibullah Zazi. The AP and Sens. Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have expressed skepticism by saying the attack in question was prevented by other more traditional spy programs. Wyden argues that the government is going to need a better example if it wants to convince him that the NSA's spy programs are actually necessary.
As part of the report, the NSA revealed that it only checked less than 300 phone numbers against its database. The revelation suggests that the NSA isn't indiscriminately gathering phone records just for the hell of it. The agency didn't address how much information is gathered and/or used from PRISM - the data collection tool that allegedly pulls information from the likes of Google, Facebook and more.
To perhaps attempt to put minds at ease, the NSA also said that it destroys gathered data every five years. It's unknown if that's part of the law or just out of necessity as the agency may not have the room to store more than five years worth of data. It may store data for longer once it completes a massive new data center in Utah that's allegedly being used to store data on Americans and non-Americans alike.
While we wait for more answers from the NSA, the tech industry has been busy pushing for more transparency. Facebook recently got its wish when it published a report over the weekend saying that it received 9,000 to 10,000 data requests over the past six months. Google and Microsoft have also published similar reports detailing how much information they hand over to the government.[h/t: AP]