News / USA

Americans Weigh Balance Between Privacy, Security

In this April 18, 2013, photo sophomore Mike Ziehr looks at his computer in the student union at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In this April 18, 2013, photo sophomore Mike Ziehr looks at his computer in the student union at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Americans found out this week that intelligence agencies are tracking nearly every phone call they make. While some lawmakers and experts believe it’s necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, others worry that the country’s intelligence apparatus has grown too large.   

Americans still only have a sketchy idea of how the phone surveillance program works and what it has achieved.

After a closed door meeting with the head of the National Security Agency, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, promised that details of how the phone surveillance program prevented terrorist attacks would be revealed in the coming days.

“So that the American public can see the full spectrum of successes of these programs, while protecting civil liberties and privacy,” said Rogers. "You can do both.”  

Rogers said the program doesn’t monitor phone conversations, but looks for patterns in the “metadata," that is, information on time, date, and numbers called. He labeled the former government contractor who leaked the surveillance program a traitor and rebuked those who consider him a hero.

Edward Snowden, who has been working at the National Security Agency for the past four years, speaking during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.Edward Snowden, who has been working at the National Security Agency for the past four years, speaking during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.
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Edward Snowden, who has been working at the National Security Agency for the past four years, speaking during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.
Edward Snowden, who has been working at the National Security Agency for the past four years, speaking during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.
The individual, Edward Snowden, also disclosed that American Internet companies have been giving the NSA information on foreigners suspected of terrorism.

The disclosure of these programs follows reports that U.S. journalists have had their phones tapped and that the nation’s intelligence apparatus has grown to comprise around five million people with high-level security clearances.

Representative John Conyers of Michigan expressed his misgivings at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. “It’s my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting billions of electronic records on law-abiding Americans every single day,” said Conyers.  

Testifying at the hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller said all surveillance is conducted in full compliance with the law and with oversight from Congress and the courts.

He said the phone data mining program could have caught the men who carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, because one of them - who was believed to be in the Far East - had actually been placing calls from San Diego to an al-Qaida safe house in Yemen.

“If we had had this program in place, at the time, we would have been able to identify that particular telephone number in San Diego,” Mueller said.  

The failure of intelligence agencies to pick up the trail of the hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has led to an overreach that is now being corrected, said Rudy deLeon, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress.

“So the pendulum is constantly moving and I think right now between our leaders in Congress, between the president and between the leaders on the national security side, we’re having an appropriate debate on where that pendulum rests right now,” he added.

But Steve Bucci of the Heritage Foundation worries that the outcome of the debate could weaken America’s defenses.

“That we might back off, in my opinion, too much, and therefore make ourselves more vulnerable in the long term as well by taking some of these tools out of the hands of our intelligence apparatus so that we in the long term can’t stop people we might have stopped before,” said Bucci.

On Wednesday, the NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, said that the phone surveillance program had prevented dozens of terrorist attacks, both in the U.S. and abroad, but declined to give details.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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by: Dee from: Nashua, NH, U.S.A.
June 16, 2013 6:05 PM
I agree with you, Kitagawa (if I may address you that way. If I am incorrect, I do apologize). There are still no efficient rules and regulations in place for the Internet/World Wide Web. As a result, governments, who have been monitoring (aka 'spying') on each other for years, can do as they please. The same applies to terrorist groups, who have also been in existence for quite some time. Everyone played by different rules prior to the invention of the Internet and, without proper regulation, we are like children in a candy store run amok! Until the computer gurus of the World create a method for monitoring that addresses this issue, one that cannot be compromised, behavior such as what we are seeing will continue to occur. It is the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

I must also say I find a tad hypocritical the indignation voiced by many elected officials in the United States, particularly our Republican lawmakers. Governments around the World have been ‘spying’ on each other for centuries. The difference here is that the veil of secrecy in which 'monitoring' cloaks itself was lifted for all to see. That is, of course, if what Mr. Snowden says can be believed - he may be lying, as well. Call me cynical, but I would not be surprised if it was discovered that Mr. Snowden’s ‘disclosure’ was merely a distraction planted by President Obama opponents to embarrass him. Unfortunately, we sometimes behave like that in America. We try to destroy each other, rather than taking the high road, resolve our differences, and work for the good of all. Our Senate and House members are the embarrassment here. They did not need a ‘Mr. Snowden’ to show that to the World. Our elected officials should only look to themselves as the culprits of any bad behavior.

by: Kitagawa Keikoh from: Nakame, JPN
June 15, 2013 7:31 PM
I think the key point of the phone surveillance program is how to make software which track and survey tens of thousands phone calls automatically.

They can check suspicious phone calls at the first time but soon terrorists will find other way to avoid tracked.

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