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FISA 101: 10 key dates in the evolution of NSA surveillance

When news of the PRISM data collection and surveillance program broke in early June 2013, it shook up the cyber security debate, and called into question just how much information the US government is authorized to collect. But government data collection isn’t something that just sprang up out of nowhere – it just sprang into national attention after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked government documents about the secret government agency. Here’s a brief list of post-9/11 legislation and surveillance programs to add a historical perspective to the current government surveillance debate.

By , Contributor

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National Security Agency plaques at the compound at Fort Meade, Md.
The NSA was founded in 1952 and includes the Central Security Service, the military arm of code breakers who work jointly with NSA.

Patrick Semansky/ AP Photo/ File

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1. Before the September 11 attacks

President Jimmy Carter signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) into law in 1978 and established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to oversee the electronic surveillance and physical searches of alleged “foreign agents.” The act defines a “foreign agent” as someone who is believed to be colluding with a foreign power. Under FISA, the secret court has to annually report the number of information requests it receives.

The Electronics Communication Privacy Act in 1986 outlines ways in which data should be protected while it is being transferred in correspondence, but it doesn’t outline privacy guidelines for data that companies store. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center now publishes a list of current statistics showing the number of electronic search applications made to the FISC.

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