Call for full accounting of secret spying programmes
Anxiety gripped everyone from civil liberties and Internet privacy advocates to the giants of the social media industry this week as revelations emerged of the secretive National Security Agency of the U.S. government collecting vast troves of user data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple at least since September 11, 2007 under a programme named PRISM.
A classified PowerPoint slideshow on PRISM, used for training U.S. intelligence officers, was obtained by The Guardian and The Washington Post this week. It showed that under the aegis of the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court the NSA “obtained direct access to the systems” of these Internet giants and used that warrantless access “to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats”.
The social media companies at the centre of these claims denied all knowledge of PRISM, though the slideshow presentation, now freely available on the Internet, suggested that the NSA’s alleged intrusion into their servers was accomplished “with the assistance of the companies.” Apple said it had “never heard” of it and Google was quick to assure that it “does not have a back door for the government to access private user data”.
Consternation spread through the real and cyber worlds as news of PRISM broke a day after The Guardian published a FISA Court order signed by Judge Roger Vinson, which used the “business records” provision of the Bush-era PATRIOT Act to snoop on the telephone records of millions of customers of telecom giant Verizon.
Yet Obama administration and Congressional officials appeared unruffled by the allegations. A White House spokesman said laws governing such programmes “have been in place for a number of years now,” and were vital for protecting national security, and another said these programmes “comply with the Constitution” and “appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties”.
Similarly, regarding the secret order to Verizon, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein said she believed that “This is an exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years.”
Yet groups such as Internet privacy advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation said, “It’s time for a full accounting of America’s secret spying programmes — and an end to unconstitutional surveillance,” adding, “Congress must... enact strong legislation to rein in the Executive Branch and protect our communications.”
Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office noted, “Congress must initiate an investigation to fully uncover the scope of these powers and their constraints, and it must enact reforms that protect Americans’ right to privacy and that enable effective public oversight of our government.” She argued that there was “a time and a place for government secrecy,” but that true democracy demanded that the governed be informed of the rules of play so as to hold elected officials to account.