When Is It Legal To Conduct Surveillance On A US Citizen

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Privacy is a right that every citizen enjoys. By law, no one has the right to invade on your private lives. That’s why there are crimes like identity theft and, apparently, invasion of privacy. These are a breach of your right to keep certain details about your life hidden. However, there could be cases that this right is violated, in a sense, out of necessity.


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Latest documents that were leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden has revealed that the Bush government and, later, the Obama administration has engaged in what they described as the “wholesale” collection of Internet metadata of a large number of Internet users, including American citizens. This brought to light several, well, unfavorable aspects about how the US government is apparently treating its citizens.

The question that is being asked now is, “When is it legal for the government to conduct surveillance on a U.S. citizen?”
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Criminal Investigations

The government may authorize any of its agencies to launch a surveillance of an individual that is suspected of criminal activities. For instance, in 1994, the U.S. government passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act or CALEA. Of course, it came into effect only in 1995. CALEA compelled telecommunications carriers and equipment manufacturers to provide capabilities to law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation to use their facilities right away if there is a need to conduct electronic surveillance on a suspect.

CALEA was known by its other nickname, the Wiretapping act. This is because, in essence, the law enforcement agencies are tapping into the individual’s phone lines to record calls and gather evidence that can be used later on when the suspect is apprehended. The Act was later expanded in 2006 to include Internet and mobile phone activities.

Wiretapping and how to obtain wiretapping orders were also covered by Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1963 as well as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

Issues of National Security

Similarly, a government theoretically can conduct surveillance on an individual suspected of being a threat not only to the local community but to the security of the nation itself. The issue of national security in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was apparently the driving force behind the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance from 2001 until 2007, as revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. The program was even dubbed as the “terrorist surveillance program” by the Bush administration during its tenure.

There is little that we do not know about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, as it is all over the news. The NSA claims that the targets of the surveillance were foreigners, in order to determine threats before they even come in to the United States – a perceived weakness in national defense that led to the recommendation and eventual commencement of the surveillance – and that the surveillance is supposed to “stop.” However, it was revealed in 2009 by the Department of Justice that the NSA had indeed collection domestic communications data and had even overstepped its bounds. However, the DOJ also states that the NSA had been corrected.

These are the two situations in which it is theoretically legal to conduct surveillance on a person. However, it is only legal when there is a warrant. Under CALEA and ECPA, law enforcement officers had to obtain warrants from the Court. Similarly, the NSA had to obtain warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; in this case, however, the warrantless wiretapping was authorized by former President Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

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