To put it lightly, the Internet blew up last night on the news that the NSA has tapped into data belonging to pretty much every major tech company. It’s alleged that the spy agency works with these companies to sift through all of their data looking for traces of foreign threats. That’s all well and dandy, but it just so happens to be a massive infringement of the Fourth Amendment.
So, what does our commander-in-chief think about all of this? President Obama says that the programs in question – wiretapping of wireless carriers and PRISM – are real, but he added that all the safeguards listed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are in effect. In fact, he says that his own administration expanded oversight and the safeguards when he took office in 2008.
I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them, we scrubbed them thoroughly, we actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment, and my team’s assessment, was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers and duration without a name attached and without looking at content — that on net, was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment of that.
As for the NSA collecting metadata from calls made through Verizon, Obama assures that the spy agency isn’t listening to your phone calls. They’re only interested in the phone numbers and duration of calls:
When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called ‘metadata,’ they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they’ve got to back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation.
In the end, Obama said that the issue of NSA spying is best left up to Congress and judges. He confirmed that members of Congress are briefed on these programs, and that they could put a stop to it if those members felt that any abuse was taking place. He also suggested that some of these issues could be taken to the courts for federal judges to decide.
President Obama seems to have forgotten, however, that both of those scenarios played out last year to no avail. Privacy advocates were hoping the Supreme Court would see their side in Hepting v. AT&T – a class-action lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of a FISA amendment that grants immunity to any telecom company providing information to the government. The courts sent it back to the lower courts. Now the EFF is fighting to have the Supreme Court hear Jewel v. NSA – a case that challenges the constitutionality of warrantless spying.
As for Congress, the FISA reauthorization debate from last year proved that most members of Congress don’t give a damn about your privacy. To this, Obama says it’s your fault – “These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress, and they’re being fully briefed on these programs”[h/t: The Verge]