Editorial: The assault on privacy

Lisa Benson, Washington Post Writers Group
Lisa Benson, Washington Post Writers Group
Published June 7, 2013

The revelations that the National Security Agency and the FBI have been culling through Americans' telephone records and Internet activity demand a broad national discussion on the proper balance between personal privacy and national security. The two spying programs, approved by Congress and a secret federal court, accessed data from the telephone company Verizon and companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook. This is the dangerous downside of powerful new computing tools used in conjunction with the overbroad surveillance powers granted to the executive branch after the 9/11 attacks. The scales are tilted too far in favor of security over privacy and should be rebalanced.

Civil libertarians and some Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, such as Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, have long criticized the breadth of surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act, which allows the government to secretly review business records relevant to a terrorist investigation. Now it's clear those worries are well founded. The executive branch, Congress and the secret federal surveillance court have been giving the government access to every telephone record from a telephone carrier and every bit of information flowing through the central servers of giant Internet companies without requiring a specific tie between the information gathered and a terror investigation.

President Barack Obama defended the programs Friday, saying there are safeguards in place. That "trust us" claim isn't good enough. Congress and the federal judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have allowed the telephone surveillance to go on since 2006. The relevant portion of the Patriot Act was renewed in 2006 and in 2011 without new limits on the broad surveillance power it authorizes. This shows how little consideration privacy limits have been getting by the other branches of government.

Defenders of the surveillance programs say that data-mining isn't intrusive since it relies on algorithms and computer programs to look for key words or chains of contacts. But the executive branch is being given access to a universe of highly sensitive data, an overwhelming proportion of which involves innocent people, and it is asking that we trust that it only reviews data while looking for a specific threat.

The FISA judges are supposed to be a check on government overreach, but they appear to be more of a rubber stamp. They have allowed the NSA to collect all call logs from a Verizon affiliate (and probably other carriers). The information includes phone numbers, length of calls and other data, though not the content of calls. The Internet program, known as PRISM, gives the government access to all personal activity on that Internet company's server, such as audio and video chats, emails, photographs and where people go online.

According to materials obtained by the Washington Post, the NSA's computers are looking to pluck foreign activity from the data stream, not the online activities of Americans. But PRISM training materials also note that plenty of American content is captured too, which it describes as "incidental." The American whose Skype chats end up being listened to might not share that description.

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Leaders in Congress from both the left and tea party right, such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., are responding to the disclosures with calls for new legislation more protective of privacy. That is exactly the conversation that should take place. Americans have a right to know the basic structure of surveillance programs that gobble up so much private information.