In response to revelations that the >National Security Agency has been extensively snooping on the telephone and internet communications of millions of Americans and foreigners, the Obama administration has said this covert monitoring under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was lawful and fully authorised by the U.S. Congress. This is cold comfort, given the shadowy nature of the FISA Court and the fact that this surveillance effort was launched with the secret cooperation of major telecom operators such as Verizon, nine large Internet companies, and even financial and credit card corporations. Leaked NSA reports specifically allude to the agency’s >PRISM programme and the Boundless Informant tool used to harvest private user data of an eye-watering magnitude, close to 97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide in March 2013 alone. ‘Strategic partner’ India was the fifth-largest source of such data. The NSA may not have broken U.S. statute, as per official claims, but its monitoring of Indian communications traffic has certainly violated India’s laws, not to speak of its trust.
The official dissembling on these snooping programmes is wrong on two fundamental points. First, the claim made by President Barack Obama that the NSA only captured communications “meta-data” and that >“nobody is listening to your telephone calls” is spurious, even misleading. The gathering of meta-data allows enormous intrusion into the private lives of law-abiding citizens. Second, the privacy policies of social media behemoths such as Facebook, Google and YouTube are meaningless given PRISM’s explicit reliance on their facilitating government access to user data. The clever wording of company denials that they provided “direct access” and “backdoor” entry to the government obfuscates the likelihood that they provided the NSA with something similar to an Application Programming Interface. Turning his back on the campaign promises he made in 2008, Mr. Obama has systematically exploited ‘counterterrorism’ measures instituted by his predecessor after 9/11 and covertly expanded their application on an unprecedented scale. It is replete with irony that his administration is vigorously prosecuting conscientious leakers such as Bradley Manning or media groups like the Associated Press, even as it taps the phone and internet records of millions of people around the world. Lawyers have now warned some of the journalists responsible for the latest exposés — including Glenn Greenwald and Guardian writers — that they are likely to be investigated. The White House will be making a big mistake if it attacks the freedom of the press in this way.