US President Barack Obama on Friday staunchly defended the sweeping American government surveillance of Americans’ phone and internet activity, calling it a modest encroachment on privacy that was necessary to defend the country from attack.
Obama said the programmes were “trade-offs” designed to strike a balance between privacy concerns and keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks. He said they were supervised by federal judges and Congress, and that lawmakers had been briefed.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this programme is about,” Obama told reporters during a visit to California’s Silicon Valley.
“In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential programme run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,” Obama said. “There are trade-offs involved.”
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that federal authorities have been tapping into the central servers of companies including Google, Apple and Facebook to gain access to emails, photos and other files allowing analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts.
That added to privacy concerns sparked by a report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that the National Security Agency had been mining phone records from millions of customers of a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.
Obama, who pledged to run the most transparent administration in US history, said in his first comments on the controversy that he came into office with a “healthy skepticism” about the surveillance programmes but had come to believe “modest encroachments on privacy” were worth it.
He said his administration also had instituted audits and tightened safeguards to ensure the programs did not overstep their bounds.
“You can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
The Washington Post said the surveillance program involving firms including Microsoft, Skype and YouTube, code-named PRISM and established under Republican President George W Bush in 2007, had seen “exponential growth” under the Democratic Obama administration.
It said the NSA increasingly relies on PRISM as a source of raw material for its intelligence reports.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2013.
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