US privacy debate heats up as White House defends collection of phone records
TAKING FLAK: US President Barack Obama’s administration is under fire over a phone surveillance programme. WASHINGTON — The debate over whether the US government is violating citizens’ privacy rights while trying to protect them from terrorism escalated dramatically on Thursday amid reports that authorities have collected data on millions of phone users and tapped into servers at nine internet companies. The White House spent much of the day defending the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) secret collection of telephone records from millions of Americans as a "critical tool" for preventing attacks, as critics called the programme — first reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper — a heavy-handed move that raised new questions about the extent of the US government’s spying on its citizens.
Some of the companies named in the article — Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook — immediately denied that the government had "direct access" to their central servers. Microsoft said it does not voluntarily participate in any government data collection and only complies "with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers".
Washington Post spokeswoman Kristine Coratti said the paper stood by its report, which was based on an NSA document that it published online. Taken together, the reports suggested US domestic surveillance, long acknowledged to have become more prevalent since the September 11 2001 attacks, was far more extensive than the public knew.
The Post said the secret programme involving the internet companies, code-named Prism and established under Republican president George Bush in 2007, had seen "exponential growth" during the past several years under Democratic President Barack Obama. The Post said an NSA report had found that the agency "increasingly relies on Prism" as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly one in seven intelligence reports.
Technology companies taking part in the programme, the Post said, included Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.... Read the full, comprehensive news article and discuss at Business Day