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Congress again pushing NSA to reveal number of Americans under surveillance

Why it matters to you

Are you curious to know just how many Americans are affected by the NSA's mass-surveillance programs. Well, the agency still isn't talking.

With the legislation that effectively legalizes the National Security Agency mass surveillance programs Prism and Upstream set to expire at the end of 2017, Congress is once again asking for numbers on how many Americans have been surveilled. Just as it has for the past six years, though, the NSA isn’t playing ball.

Although most Americans only learned of the country’s large-scale spying operations after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed them, Congress has been aware a little longer. Since 2011, several key members have been trying to find out how many Americans the NSA has collected personal information from, but they’ve always been denied, according to Ars Technica.

The reason Congress is making a big case to have those numbers revealed this year is because, as during the Obama administration, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will expire on December 31. While the Trump administration is keen to see this legislation remain in place, according to The Intercept, Congress wants the numbers to know just how effective it is and how much useless information is potentially collected from regular citizens.

The NSA says that it can’t reveal them, even in top-secret briefings. Just as it did when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) requested them in 2011, 2012 and 2014, it claims that by revealing how many Americans were affected, it would require identifying them. That, it claims, would mean destroying their anonymity as part of the data, thereby making their information more vulnerable.

That sort of circular logic isn’t sitting well with senators, nor with privacy champion the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It is urging Congress to allow FISA to expire, thereby making the mass spying conducted by the NSA and other intelligence agencies illegal in the future.

As it stands, the NSA uses Prism to siphon mass data from popular online services like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, while Upstream lets it tap into the fiber cables that transmit the internet across the country and around the world.

Although the NSA and others argue that such technologies are vital in helping protect Americans, many have argued that mass surveillance breaches the Constitution and undermines the idea of a free and democratic society.