The government’s massive and indiscriminate collection of electronic information is a genie that is not going back in the bottle.
On Wednesday came the revelation that the National Security Agency, described by The Washington Post as “the largest and most technologically sophisticated spying organization in the nation and possibly the world,” was gathering Americans’ phone records, who they called, how long they talked and any special “identifiers.”
To actually listen to the conversations, though, the NSA needed a warrant from a special and secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, which hardly inspired great confidence since the court had apparently been routinely rubber-stamping three-month extensions of the warrant for seven years.
Congressional oversight did not seem especially harsh, either, because at a hearing on the program, several lawmakers seemed intent on determining that whomever else NSA was listening to, members of Congress were not among them.
The obvious question in the public mind: What else don’t we know?
The answer was not long in coming — the next day, in fact.
The NSA and the FBI, under a program called PRISM, were tapping directly into the servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, vacuuming up audio and video chats, emails, photos, documents and connection logs.
The companies were Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, PalTalk, AOL, Skype and Apple. If the disclaimers by some of their corporate spokesmen are accurate, a number of these companies might not even have known they were under the wholesale surveillance of government spooks, although that is hard to believe.
The point of the program is to identify and intercept terrorist networks and their plots. The program began under President George W. Bush. But as even President Barack Obama’s friends have pointed out, the program has been “embraced and expanded,” as one account put it, under the erstwhile civil libertarian.