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What questions should reporters be asking about the NSA domestic surveillance program?

ASK THIS | February 07, 2006

There are so many unanswered questions regarding President Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program. George Washington University Law School Professor Orin Kerr suggests a few that reporters should be able to find answers to.

By Orin Kerr

Q. The NSA is believed to be tapping phone and data traffic as it passes through giant telecom switches. How do those telecom switches work?

Q. Does the NSA program collect the contents of communications, or is it limited to collecting "metadata," information about calls such as the numbers dialed from a particular telephone? Are the rules for collecting metadata the same as the rules for collecting contents?

Q. Is this at heart a wiretapping program, or is it a data mining program?

There's an important difference between sniffing data in real time -- which means looking for certain words or sequences, while immediately shedding anything that doesn't match -- and, on the other hand, sucking up enormous amounts of data, storing it, and looking through it later. The latter is more troublesome from a privacy standpoint, because it lets the government reexamine the same data in different ways later on.

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