Secrets, lies and America’s spies: A government’s first job is to protect its citizens. But that should be based on informed consent, not blind trust

Constant vigilance: that is the task of the people who protect society from enemies intent on using subterfuge and violence to get their way. It is also the watchword of those who fear that the protectors will pursue the collective interest at untold cost to individual rights. Edward Snowden, a young security contractor, has come down on one side of that tussle by leaking documents showing that the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on millions of Americans’ phone records and on the internet activity of hundreds of millions of foreigners.The documents, published by the Guardian and the Washington Post, include two big secrets. One is a court order telling Verizon, a telecoms company, to hand over “metadata”, such as the duration, direction and location of subscribers’ calls. The other gives some clues about a programme called PRISM, which collects e-mails, files and social-networking data from firms such as Google, Apple and Facebook. Much of this eavesdropping has long been surmised, and none of it is necessarily illegal. America gives wide powers to its law-enforcement and spy agencies. They are overseen by Congress and courts, which issue orders to internet firms. see:Look who’s listening: America’s National Security Agency collects more information than most people thought. Will scrutiny spur change?
Thick and fast they came at last, and more and more and more. On June 5th the Guardian, a British newspaper, reported that America’s National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans not suspected of crimes. A day later, the Washington Post reported the existence of a programme code-named PRISM, under which the NSA collects an unknown quantity of e-mails, internet phone-calls, photos, videos, file transfers and social-networking data from big internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Skype, Microsoft and PalTalk — a video-chat service popular in the Middle East and among Muslims.Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed that widespread collection of telephone records had been going on for years. As for PRISM, on June 8th America’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, issued a rare public statement acknowledging its existence, but stressing that it is lawful and operates under a secret court that oversees intelligence-gathering. The leaker revealed himself the next day: Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old who had worked as a security contractor at the NSA for the past four years, employed by several private contractors. see:Multiple New Polls Show Americans Reject Wholesale NSA Domestic Spying
In the 1950s and 60s, the NSA spied on all telegrams entering and exiting the country. The egregious actions were only uncovered after Congress set up an independent investgation called the Church Committee in the 1970s after Watergate. When the American public learned about NSA’s actions, they demanded change. And the Church Committee delivered it by providing more information about the programs and by curtailing the spying.Just like the American public in the 1970s, Americans in the 2010s know that when the government amasses dossiers on citizens, it’s neither good for security nor for privacy. And a wide range of polls this week show widespread concern among the American people over the new revelations about NSA domestic spying.

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