Shortly after Edward Snowden's revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting massive amounts of data on members of the public through its surveillance of millions of Verizon customers and its PRISM program, ProPublica's Jeff Larson decided to try and find out what information the agency had collected about him. So he submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request (see the embed below) on June 13. The FOIA gives the public the right to request information kept by federal government agencies, although information falling under some categories does not have to be disclosed, and requests can be submitted by anyone.
Although Larson says that he did not expect an answer to his request, he did get one. It was just not a very useful answer, with the agency saying it was not able to either confirm or deny whether it has Larson's metadata or not. So while you have the freedom to ask the government for information on you, the government also has the freedom to give you a useless response.
Responding to Larson's request, Pamela Phillips, the chief FOIA officer at the NSA, begins by nicely reminding Larson that the NSA's surveillance programs are all about ensuring national security and that any data collection is done so under strict controls. As if Larson did not already know the government's vague blanket justification for eroding civil liberties. Phillips then goes on to say that the agency could neither confirm nor deny whether it held any information on Larson because doing so would help "our adversaries," whoever they are:
"Any positive or negative response on a request-by-request basis would allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA's technical capabilities, sources, and methods. Our adversaries are likely to evaluate all public responses related to these programs. Were we to provide positive or negative responses to requests such as yours, our adversaries' compilation of the information provided would reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security."
The agency says that although the PRISM and Verizon surveillance programs are now public knowledge, "details about them remain classified and/or protected from release by statutes to prevent harm to the national security of the United States." It is not like this has not been a massive news story, with details of the programs and how they operate being published all around the world, for the past couple of weeks or anything. Nicely enough, the NSA informed Larson that they were not going to charge him for their useless answer.
Essentially the NSA says that it cannot tell Larson whether it has his metadata or not because if it did so, then the terrorists might read their response and win. Also, if it answered his request then it would be unfair to all the other people they have spied upon who have not filed FOIA requests. So there.
National security, national security, national security, national security, national security, national security, national security, national security, national security, national security. Perhaps if the government keeps repeating this cry long and loud enough then people will stop asking hard questions.