New Reports of Government Surveillance Escalate Privacy Debate

Has the administration run roughshod over the public's rights?

Microsoft might want to rethink running those ads that boast, "Your privacy is our priority."

A stunning report in the Washington Post that says that the government, under the auspices of the National Security Agency, tapped into the servers of Microsoft and eight other Internet companies, has vaulted the privacy debate to a whole new level. The program, code-named "Prism," might as well be called Big Brother from the way it was described. 

Just how much data should the government be allowed to survey in the name of security and are citizen's privacy rights being run over in the process?

One sentence in the Post report, quoting the source that leaked details of the so-called Prism project—which can access audio, email, video, chat, photographs, and file transfers—had people alarmed, if not scared: "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type."


Of the nine companies were cited in the report, Google, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo issued statements denying that they give direct access to their servers. 

Ashkan Soltani, a privacy researcher and consultant tweeted that his read of what was happening was that the companies were providing an API (application programming interface) to specific content and target activity under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or as he described it a "push notification for NSA."

Whatever is going on, privacy groups sounded the alarm.

"In the face of this avalanche of frightening revelations about the breadth of the NSA's surveillance program, one thing is clear: it's time for a reckoning," said Center for Democracy and Technology president Leslie Harris. "The American people should not have to play guessing games about whether and how their own government is monitoring them."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been fighting the NSA's domestic surveillance program in courts, called the NSA revelations "incontrovertible evidence" of the government's "dragnet surveillance" of the American public. The EFF has posted a petition asking individuals to email Congress.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Co.) issued "I told you sos," having tried to rally Congress to address the issue over the past year. "We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows," the duo wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year. 

The White House is defending the surveillance. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told Politico the NSA and FBI monitoring was "important and entirely legal."   

President Obama defended the NSA surveillance Friday in San Jose following scheduled remarks about the Affordable Care Act. The program "does not apply to U.S. citizens" or "people living in the U.S." he said, adding that there was strong oversight of the program by all three branches of government. "It's important for people to understand there are some tradeoofs. You can't have 100 percent security and have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said.