Responding to the revelations detailing the US government's massive surveillance programs in recent days, President Obama on Friday said the two programs—one which allows the collection of virtually all phone records produced in the United States and the other which allows the National Security Agency to search through the private digital data of the world's most popular internet systems—are merely a "modest encroachment" on personal privacies.
However, calling the program "Orwellian" and a "grave threat to democratic freedoms," critics of the program and other champions of civil liberties have decried the government's surveillance tactics saying—as one of the journalists who broke the story, Glenn Greenwald, did— "It's well past time that we have a debate about whether that's the kind of country and world in which we want to live."
"There is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal," Greenwald said, appearing on CNN's Piers Morgan Thursday night following the story's release. "And that is to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but around the world."
“Unchecked government surveillance presents a grave threat to democratic freedoms," added Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's Deputy Legal Director. “The stories published over the last two days make clear that the NSA – part of the military – now has direct access to every corner of Americans’ digital lives.”
Arguing that criticisms of the program are "overblown," the President, along with other defenders of the surveillance program point to the fact that the NSA is reportedly not eavesdropping on the content of communications but rather "sifting through the metadata," which includes the identities of the sender and recipient, and the time, date, duration and location of a communication.
"I think it's important for everybody to understand—and I think the American people understand—that there are some tradeoffs involved [in the balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy]," said President Obama during a press appearance Friday. "And the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net, it was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment on that."
However, as Jay Stanley and Ben Wizner of the ACLU argue, "any suggestion that Americans have nothing to worry about from this dragnet collection of communications metadata is wrong." They explain:
Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets – anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we’re gay or straight. The suggestion that metadata is “no big deal” – a view that, regrettably, is still reflected in the law – is entirely out of step with the reality of modern communications.
“The public doesn’t understand,” said mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau, speaking with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer about the collection of metadata. “It’s much more intrusive than content.”
Adding that if the government can track “who you call, and who they call" then "you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.”
For example, Mayer notes, in the case of journalists, metadata,
can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” [Landau] said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.
"It's well past time that we have a debate about whether that's the kind of country and world in which we want to live," added Greenwald. "We haven't had that debate because it's all done in secrecy and the Obama administration has been very aggressive about bullying and threatening anybody who thinks about exposing it or writing about it or even doing journalism about it. It's well past time that that come to an end."
No one's ever heard of it before and yet it has extraordinary consequences for what our governtment does, for how the world is impacted. If you look at the pages of reports that the PRISM program talks about and that the NSA program boasts about, they pride themselves on discovering all sorts of political conversations in places like Turkey and Israel. They use Facebook and Google and Skype to invade conversations about a whole variety of things, in South America in Asia. And, many times, the people involved in these conversations and where they originate are people within the United States. It's all done without warrants and without accountability and the entire world is impacted.
Watch Greenwald's full discussion of the programs on CNN:
Also, on Friday, Greenwald appeared on Democracy Now!