US surveillance reports fuel debate over privacy

US surveillance reports fuel debate over privacy

US surveillance reports fuel debate over privacy

AP Photo

The debate over whether the U.S. government is violating citizens’ privacy rights while trying to protect them from terrorism has escalated dramatically amid reports that authorities have collected data on millions of phone users and tapped into servers at nine internet companies.

The White House spent much of the day on June 6 defending the National Security Agency’s (NSA) secret collection of telephone records from millions of Americans as a “critical tool” for preventing attacks, as critics called the program, first reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, a heavy-handed move that raised new questions about the extent of the U.S. government’s spying on its citizens.

At day’s end, the flap over the NSA’s mining of data from customers of a subsidiary of Verizon Communications was overtaken by a Washington Post report that described an even more aggressive program of government surveillance. The daily, citing a career intelligence officer, reported that the NSA and the FBI have been tapping “directly” into the central servers of leading U.S. internet companies to gain access to emails, photographs, audio, video, documents, connection logs and other information that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time. Technology companies taking part in the program include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

‘Americans are not being spied on’

Some of the companies named in the article immediately denied that the government had “direct access” to their central servers. James Clapper, the director of U.S. national intelligence, has reacted sharply after leaked documents revealed information about two top-secret intelligence-gathering programs.

In an unusual statement late June 6, Clapper acknowledged reports were indeed significant but called disclosure of the internet surveillance program “reprehensible” and said the leak about the phone record collecting could cause long-lasting and irreversible harm to the nation’s ability to respond to threats. Clapper said news reports about the programs contained inaccuracies and omitted key information.

In response to the reports, also carried by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the White House said Americans were not being spied on, but did not deny the program existed.

Washington Post spokeswoman Kristine Coratti said the paper stood by its report. The paper said the leak came from a career intelligence officer “with firsthand experience of these systems and horror at their capabilities.” “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer was quoted as saying.

Taken together, the reports suggested that U.S. domestic surveillance, long acknowledged to have become more prevalent since the 9/11 attacks, was far more extensive than the public knew.

Washington Post said that the secret program involving the internet companies, code-named PRISM and established under President George W. Bush in 2007, had seen “exponential growth” during the past several years under President Obama.

The daily said an NSA report had found that the agency “increasingly relies on PRISM” as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.

For civil libertarians and other critics of expanded secret surveillance, the revelations amounted to a reminder of how the 9/11 attacks increased the government’s reach into Americans’ daily lives. “These revelations are a reminder that Congress has given the executive branch far too much power to invade individual privacy (and) that existing civil liberties safeguards are grossly inadequate,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The surveillance program “was recently reauthorized by Congress after extensive hearings and debate,” a senior administration official said. “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”