7 Jun 2013

Obama defends US spying on internet and phone data

Barack Obama defends secret surveillance reports, assuring citizens phone calls are private. But the Information Commissioner’s Office says there are “real issues” about US agencies accessing UK data.

In his first comments since the government’s surveillance programmes were made public, President Obama insisted that they were conducted with broad safeguards to protect against abuse.

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this programme is about,” said the president.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the National Security Agency and FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading US internet companies. Meanwhile the Guardian reported that the US government is collecting telephone records of millions of Americans as part of counterterrorism efforts.

On Friday, it also emerged that at least one European intelligence agency is using the US Prism service too: the Guardian reported that GCHQ has had access to the system since at least June 2010, and generated 197 intelligence reports from it last year.

Mr Obama insisted that the surveillance programs struck the right balance between keeping Americans safe from terrorist attack and protecting their privacy.

There are real issues about the extent to which US law enforcement agencies can access personal data of UK and other European citizens. ICO

But the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said that that there were “real issues” with the revelations. A spokesperson told Channel 4 News that there appeared to be aspects of US law that conflicts with UK law and that the ICO had raised concerns with the EU commission, which is in discussions with the US government.

The Post reported that the giants of Silicon Valley were tapped as part of a highly classified anti-terrorism programme, code-named Prism. The companies were named as Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, who joined the programme at different times since 2007 – but all companies deny any knowledge of the programmes.

In statements released late on Thursday, Google, Apple, Yahoo! and Facebook vehemently 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”.

Read more: FBI spying on Google and Facebook data – key questions

US response

Responding to both reports, James Clapper, the US government’s director of national intelligence, released an unusual late-night statement on Thursday insisting that the programme was legal, but limited in scope.

He said the law that allows American government agencies to collect communications from internet companies only permits the targeting of “non-US persons” outside the United States.

In a statement, he added that the stories contained “numerous inaccuracies”, but declined to give details on what these were.

Mr Clapper called the disclosure of a program that targets foreigners’ internet use “reprehensible.” On the leak of another programme which collects Americans’ phone records, he said it affect how America’s enemies behave and make it harder to understand their intentions.

US vs UK law

In a statement, the Information Commissioner Office (ICO) told Channel 4 News: “There are real issues about the extent to which US law enforcement agencies can access personal data of UK and other European citizens.

“Aspects of US law under which companies can be compelled to provide information to US agencies potentially conflict with European data protection law, including the UK’s own data protection act.”

We must have mechanisms to ensure that governments can be called to account, to ensure that their legal powers are used only for their proper purposes. Tim Summers, lawyer

Surveillance agencies have always worked with private companies to gather intelligence. The Washington Post says that the difference this time is the size of the companies involved and the nature of the access, which allows the government to dip in and out of the data “treasure troves” through a so-called “back door” into the server.

Data gathered through Prism has been used in one in seven intelligence reports, the Post reports, and formed part of the president’s daily briefing in 1,477 items last year.

Tim Summers, partner at silicon roundabout-based law firm, Temple Bright, said that the revelations have huge consequences.

“For businesses large and small, this also has repercussions,” he told Channel 4 News. “Firms have grown accustomed to conducting business and storing confidential information online, but this is something that many companies will be minded to revisit if the world’s leading tech companies are colluding with the state.

“Businesses need to be transparent, but they are also obliged by law (and entitled to expect) that private or commercially sensitive dealings remain private and aren’t vulnerable to covert state intrusion.

“As such, we must have mechanisms to ensure that governments can be called to account, to ensure that their legal powers are used only for their proper purposes – such as counter-terrorism – and do not extend into other areas.”

Privacy rights

In Washington, the Guardian report fuelled an ongoing debate over whether the US government is violating citizens’ privacy rights while trying to protect them from attacks.

That debate is sure to escalate with the Post’s report, which said the NSA and FBI are extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs to build a database involving trillions of communications.

The Post said it obtained copies of briefing slides describing the Silicon Valley operation that were intended for senior analysts in the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate.

The programme was established under Republican President George W Bush in 2007 and has grown exponentially since then during President Barack Obama’s administration, the Post article said.