Can We Trust Our Government Not To Spy On Us?

    June 18, 2013
    Zach Walton
    Comments are off for this post.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the NSA collects massive amounts of information on non-Americans and Americans via phone tapping and Internet surveillance. President Obama and his administration were quick to deny that the program targets Americans. He’s been relatively quiet about the NSA since then, but he finally broke that silence in an interview with Charlie Rose.

In short, he is still defending the NSA spying program. He argues that it’s needed to protect the American people from terrorism. It’s a noble cause, but can we really trust the Obama administration with its recently revealed spying powers?

Are you comfortable with the NSA spy programs? Do you think Obama is right to defend it? Let us know in the comments.

So, let’s start with a breakdown of Obama’s interview with Rose. You can watch the interview here, and BuzzFeed has a transcript up of the important NSA bits from the 45 minute interview. First up – Obama says that the NSA spy programs are all about tradeoffs. In other words, he argues that it’s fine to give up a little freedom in exchange for security:

Well, in the end, and what I’ve said, and I continue to believe, is that we don’t have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That’s a false choice. That doesn’t mean that there are not tradeoffs involved in any given program, in any given action that we take. So all of us make a decision that we go through a whole bunch of security at airports, which when we were growing up that wasn’t the case…. And so that’s a tradeoff we make, the same way we make a tradeoff about drunk driving. We say, “Occasionally there are going to be checkpoints. They may be intrusive.” To say there’s a tradeoff doesn’t mean somehow that we’ve abandoned freedom. I don’t think anybody says we’re no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports.

Obama is quick to point out that there is a balance in place to ensure that the spy programs don’t go too far:

The way I view it, my job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life, which includes our privacy. And so every program that we engage in, what I’ve said is “Let’s examine and make sure that we’re making the right tradeoffs.”

Going even further, Obama reiterates that the NSA can’t spy on an American citizen:

What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails … and have not. They cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and unless they — and usually it wouldn’t be “they,” it’d be the FBI — go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause….

So point number one, if you’re a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it’s not targeting your emails unless it’s getting an individualized court order. That’s the existing rule. There are two programs that were revealed by Mr. Snowden, allegedly, since there’s a criminal investigation taking place, and they caused all the ruckus. Program number one, called the 2015 Program, what that does is it gets data from the service providers like a Verizon in bulk, and basically you have call pairs. You have my telephone number connecting with your telephone number. There are no names. There is no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place. So that database is sitting there. Now, if the NSA through some other sources, maybe through the FBI, maybe through a tip that went to the CIA, maybe through the NYPD. Get a number that where there’s a reasonable, articulable suspicion that this might involve foreign terrorist activity related to Al-Qaeda and some other international terrorist actors. Then, what the NSA can do is it can query that database to see did any of the — did this number pop up? Did they make any other calls? And if they did, those calls will be spit out. A report will be produced. It will be turned over to the FBI.

Now, this is where the narrative starts to diverge. Edward Snowden, the whisteblower that leaked the NSA spy programs to the press, said in a Q&A with Guardian readers that the NSA can listen in on the content of American’s phone calls. More worrisome, he said that this communications content can be obtained without a warrant:

NSA likes to use “domestic” as a weasel word here for a number of reasons… The reality is that due to [a 2008 federal law known as FAA 702], Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as “incidental” collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications… If I target for example an email address, for example under FAA 702, and that email address sent something to you, Joe America, the analyst gets it. All of it. IPs, raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything. And it gets saved for a very long time — and can be extended further with waivers rather than warrants.”

Later on in the interview with Rose, Obama addresses PRISM – the spy program that allegedly gathers data from Internet companies like Google, Facebook and others. He asserts that this program, like the aforementioned phone tapping program, doesn’t target Americans:

There is a second program called the 702 program. And what that does is that does not apply to any U.S. person. Has to be a foreign entity. It can only be narrowly related to counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber hacking or attacks, and a select number of identifiers — phone numbers, emails, et cetera. Those — and the process has all been approved by the courts — you can send to providers — the Yahoos or the Googles, what have you. And in the same way that you present essentially a warrant. And what will happen then is that you there can obtain content. But again, that does not apply to U.S. persons. And it’s only in these very narrow bands. So, you asked, what should we do? …What I’ve said is — is that what is a legitimate concern — a legitimate critique — is that because these are classified programs — even though we have all these systems of checks and balances, Congress is overseeing it, federal courts are overseeing it — despite all that, the public may not fully know. And that can make the public kind of nervous, right? Because they say, “Well, Obama says it’s okay — or Congress says it’s okay. I don’t know who this judge is. I’m nervous about it.” What I’ve asked the intelligence community to do is see how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program, number one. And they are in that process of doing so now so that everything that I’m describing to you today, people, the public, newspapers, etc., can look at because frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they’re not getting the complete story.

Obama’s statement echoes what we’ve been hearing recently from tech companies that were allegedly involved in PRISM. Google and Facebook both released statements last week saying that the leaked slides were inaccurate, but highlighted a need for more transparency to prevent customers from leaving them for others that promise security and privacy.

Do you believe Obama will make the NSA more transparent? Or is just an empty promise? Let us know in the comments.

Now then, President Obama and the tech companies aren’t addressing the elephant in the room – incidental data collection. In the original PRISM leaks, it was revealed that the NSA would collect data on non-targeted American citizens. It can’t go through this data without a warrant, but it’s worrisome nonetheless to know that the NSA is collecting information on American citizens without a warrant.

So, how are they are able to get away with it? In a recently revealed court case from 2008, it was shown that Yahoo fought against a court order to hand over data that included incidental data. In the case, the secret FISA court ruled “that incidental collections occurring as a result of constitutionally permissible acquisitions do not render those acquisitions unlawful.” The court also said that the Bush administration assured it “that it does not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted United States persons, and there is no evidence to the contrary.”

Something must have changed between 2008 and now, however, as the government outright admitted over the weekend that it does keep a database of the information it collects. It doesn’t say whether or not that includes incidental data, but Snowden has said that it does. The government maintains that this information is destroyed every five years, but it still may have incidental data from American citizens on its servers for five years.

So, where do we go from here? At the end of his interview, Obama says that he understands the concerns from civil liberty proponents, and that he wants to initiate a national debate with these groups about the NSA and other programs involving the collection of data:

I’ve stood up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, made up of independent citizens including some fierce civil libertarians. I’ll be meeting with them. And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.

Do you think Obama will really start a national debate on NSA spy programs and data collection? Will it actually accomplish anything? Let us know in the comments.

[Image: White House/flickr]
  • Paul

    Spies spy. That’s all they do, all day, every day.

  • sofakingdabest

    Privacy is only limited to the inside of the walls where you live. If you open your curtains, anything viewed inside from the outside is not private. You want real privacy? Become homeless and stay of the grid.

  • Linda

    Smaller government is the only answer.

  • http://fairdui.org Fair DUI

    Why would anyone trust what they tell us. They have now admitted that they have access to the “metadata” from every call and every e-mail. They were hiding that from us before.

    So when they claim they can’t listen in to our calls or read our e-mails, why would we trust that they’re telling us the truth now?

    And why would Snowden lie about it?

    Frankly, Snowden is more trustworthy than any of our esteemed politicians.

  • Thomas

    I think the NSA needs to be monitored via an over site committee. It takes an event like this to get the needed attention.

  • chris

    Not a big deal if you dont have something to hide…

  • Aaron

    When Obama say’s ” we need to be more transparent” He is talking about the American People !!! Not the Government. And Most certainly not his administration.
    Spying is an act of Tyranny And is Illegal ! It is against our constitutional rights to privacy. Its not so much about spying and the other Crap he is doing. Its about giving up our constitution and our amendments little by little until Our government Controls every aspect of our lives.
    Its about an Illegal Outsider “RULING” Our Country. Its about The government turning our Beloved U.S.A into a Socialist, Communistic,Country controlled by Islam.
    Obama IS A MUSLIM ,an IMPOSTER, And is setting the stage for UN take over. Wake UP America.

    • John

      Its not just about the America people. I am not in America, and Obama has violated my rights to privacy as an individual. He is not my president. I owe no allegiance to him. I am not answerable to him. I owe nothing to American politics. This is not Anti-American. Americans are lovely people. I just take issue that American Government is violating my private space. I do not subscribe to “If I am doing nothing wrong, then I have nothing to hide.” I subscribe to, “If I am doing nothing wrong, what the hell has it to do with you.”

  • http://www.theinfogroup.com Mark

    It’s funny to hear people talk as if the government monitoring of call and internet data is such an intrusion yet they don’t seem to care that the data the government collects is nothing compared to what businesses like Google and Facebook are gathering on us.

    • Matt

      People do complain about it, its just a bigger deal when the government does it. Couple years ago facebook and google were always on the news. Pretty much all you heard about for a while when it was google, yahoo, facebook and myspace stealing people info. Yes its stealing, if it’s stealing to copy movies and music isn’t stealing when someone takes your data.

    • John

      True, but it is still part of the same problem. We as a people have not risen up strong enough about it. We need to rise up. We need to take our time to start boycotting if we can. You can still Google without using Google by using services like https://startpage.com/ it is a small start, but it is a start. Use privacy addons in your browser. I have told Google that I will not use Chrome because it invades my privacy. I am just one small voice, but it needs allot to do the same. We need to stand together.

  • Twerking at Arby’s

    Something something something OBAMA!!!!

    Blah blah blah NSA!!!!

  • Gary

    No we can’t trust this, or any other government. All governments since time began, are all about seizing more power, about controlling more and more. As Thomas Jefferson said, “A government powerful enough to give you everything is also powerful enough to take everything away”. We’re approaching this kind of government at a rapid pace. Patrick Henry and others, demanded there be a “Bill of Rights” in the Constitution. If he had only known how devious and corrupt the world’s governments would ultimately become.

  • Sherry

    Does everyone remember the Boston Marathon? We do not live in the society of the past. Terrorists that wish to hurt the people of our country live outside of the country and unfortunately also within the USA. If a terror attack is successful within the USA the citizens who have a problem with the administration gathering intelligence find fault with the government but they also fault them for the need to gather intelligence. Innocent citizens of this country have the right to be protected and that is what they are using the information to do. I have nothing to hide and therefore do not mind that the government might see or hear my personal information if it assists in the protection of the people that live in this country.

    • John

      If I ever meet you, please remind me who you are. I leep out of the way of ill informed sanctimonious smug opinionated idiots.

  • Al

    It is a shame that we as a nation no longer read about what is happening in our communities, nation and in the world.

    The creation of these programs was well covered by the commercial and business press. Hearings included all groups interested in personal freedoms as well as those concerned about your safety and security.

    Remember the calls from the press after the Boston incident for an explanation as to why the intelligence community did not pick up on the path these men had taken. Everyone was at blame, but especially those in the government who we expect to protect us, our families, friends, community and nation.

    What is the answer then?

    Is it hiring more people to spy on each other or to use technology to weave the needles in the information hay stack into a “bucket” so we can see and then prevent their intention?

    These information collection programs were only possible because our/your representative(s) crafting legislation and together passing laws allowing it.

    These same individuals knowing what is at stake then proceeded to finance the development of the technologies and to then collect pieces of information with an understanding of why they were important to the security of our nation.

    Frankly they have acted on your and my behalf to include safeguards in the law and appointing a multi-judge panel of senior judges representing all prospectives. The President and others have explained the process.

    Do we trust them or anyone to make the right choices?

    Do we share the same prospective as those making these decisions/choices?

    I have supported colleagues in over 70 countries that purchase the most goods and services from the United States companies and I am reminded that there are only 18 countries where you can walk the streets and roads safely most everywhere.

    We are living in a world where nations and their people live with far less freedom that we do, yet believe in their country’s values as strongly as you do. They like ourselves, distrust people in other countries, just as we do at times.

    So what can you do . . .

    Read and listen to a variety of viewpoints . . . stop reading and listening to sound bites . . . find out what is behind the headline . . . and then become an involved citizen.

    We need your help!

  • nubwaxer

    huge cost, few and dubious results. just a huge waste of resources.

  • Mike

    Governments in rapid decline usually are the most paranoid and soon we’ll have another war to distract you from the problems in our own back yard.

  • Damian

    I agree with Paul. Spies spy, that’s what they do. As for listening into people’s calls, even if they do, and it’s not just metadata they are collecting, then good luck! If they listen to mine, well, welcome to my personal life. They would need strong coffee to stay awake.

  • Elaine

    The law that allows the collection of information was passed under the Bush administration post 9/11 and there was no uproar about it then. So why now? Because some people don’t like that fact that a black man is President. This law was a knee jerk reaction to preventing other terrorist attacks. Make sure the blame is placed where it should be. Bush.

  • http://www.crosslinktech.com Karl Egenberger

    I don’t believe we can trust government on this. Governments like power and this gives them tremendous control and the opportunity to misuse power. This is evidenced by the fact the most people did not know about the monitoring until now. We are talking about secret courts and court orders. What else is going on? Unfortunately these things are rather easy to sell to the population at large, under the disguise of “protection from terrorism”. This sounds to me like “smoke and mirrors”. The communists used to open and read your mail. At least there you could tell that the envelope has been opened. More and more people are beginning to talk about being careful what they say in their email messages. This is not good.

    Based on all this, one has to wonder, who is really winning the war and terror?

  • Ron

    Since when, have we been able to trust or government? not in my life time.

  • http://www.petdreams.dk Kristian Pedersen

    It’s history repeating itself. Governments with too much power and too much tax money has always ended up violating the people. Very slowly of course, have to get used to it. It’s like the boiling frog, soon to realize it becomes nasty at the end. We’re not there yet, but has anyone told this is it?

  • John

    Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when the country really needs him?

  • http://www.thevietnamtraveler.com Rich

    ABSOLUTELY NOT! The government cannot be trusted! Obama is just a tool. He is no more in charge than you or I. If the corporate elite wants the government to spy on us, then that’s what they’ll do.

  • Joe P

    We know who controls main stream media.

    If main stream media is hyping the NSA spying something else is happening, remember clinton monica glass-steagal act.

    What’s the banksters trying?

  • Gumbi5

    This President has the ability to do exactly what he proposes, yet he does not. He rails against the “Bush” Administration while continuing on with the policies he “inherited” and even expanding upon them. In fact, this President usually does the exact opposite of what he claims to be doing… If he were Pinocchio his nose would circle the globe several times by now.

  • Hope-along Bamaly

    Do I trust? When has bHo ever not lied? Ever exposed his records? Ever been transparent?

  • http://huh jim edwards

    I am 83 years old—-I have learned not to trust three things in my late years—-my memory—–A fart—- and the American self serving government

    jim e

  • http://huh jim edwards

    If we put barbwire around the states capitals, and Washington dc—we would have 95%of white paper crime—-be hind barb wire

    jim e

    • Peter Lee

      unless one is totaly nuts you must know that america is the mose dangerius country onm this planet. they are so scared of their own shadow they have to SPY on every other country. So what should we do? i say we should cut off all ties with them and as for this traide agrement a big NO.