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Government Surveillance of Internet Traffic

By Peter Clarke, JD on July 05, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the internet.

At this point, it may come as no surprise that the US government has some ability to monitor internet traffic. However, the tremendous extent of government surveillance may be somewhat alarming to those who are interested in privacy on the internet.

An article by reports that the NSA has the ability to read 75 percent of all U.S. internet traffic. The article points out that programs referred to as Stormbrew, Lithium, Oakstar, Fairview, and Blarney all have the ability to monitor the actual text of emails, not just email metadata.

According to the article, NSA officials have downplayed the issue, stating that the NSA "touches" only 1.6 percent of internet traffic. While this at first blush may provide some solace to privacy advocates, TechCrunch has speculated that this 1.6 percent simply refers to information that has been sent directly to the NSA and that has been "culled to their liking."

The article also makes plain that the NSA can zero in on all types of information relating to particular events for a sustained block of time. For example, the NSA, in conjunction with the FBI, reportedly were able to monitor all email and text messages for a six-month period with respect to the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Interestingly, even though lawmakers have argued that NSA surveillance is essential in protecting national security, Blarney reportedly was in use prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This particular program was in use close to important fiber-optic landing points, including one near San Francisco and another in New Jersey, with the purpose of intercepting foreign communications coming into an going out of United States.

Of course, government surveillance concerns arise in other countries too. According to, a new law was recently enacted in Russia that requires companies to store data they collect about Russian citizens on Russian territory. This new law reportedly has created uncertainty among companies and has caused heightened worries about surveillance and threats to privacy rights. This comes at a time when the Russian government has been seeking to tighten its control over the internet. Certain privacy advocates worry that the new law is an effort to obtain access to personal information for surveillance purposes.

We live in uncertain times. There is a dynamic tension between security and privacy. We will see which direction the pendulum swings in the upcoming near future.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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