NSA leak rocks American privacy debate

Two weeks ago, no one had ever heard of Edward Snowden. The National Security Agency was another of many vague governmental agencies whose purpose was either unknown or uninteresting to many Americans Š—ê but a lot can change in two weeks.

The now infamous NSA leak revealed countless information about the agency’s policy on collecting phone and Internet data. Through its Prism program, they retrieved online chats, emails and search histories with the help of Internet giants like Apple and Google. They also used a court order to obtain phone metadata from Verizon. This data included call location and duration, but the content of the conversations themselves were not recorded, according to The Guardian.

All of this information is mined by a tool called Boundless Informant, The Guardian reported. This allows the NSA to determine the origin of the data they collected. According to a FAQ about Boundless Informant, it “allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collection against that country.” It showed data collection from Iran, Pakistan and-despite government claims otherwise-the United States.

“The Prism program, though mainly confirming what many have thought for some time, represents an enormous government program that gathers information about the Internet use of all Americans,” Dr. Benjamin Epstein, a political science professor at DePaul, said. “It represents a serious threat to Fourth Amendment protections. More than that, it brings the classic security versus freedoms debate into the modern era in a way it had not been before.”

These leaks are courtesy of Snowden, a current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. He also used to work in IT security for the CIA, The Guardian reported, but left in 2009 desensitized about what he saw and hoping the Obama administration would change that. Booz Allen Hamilton set him up with a NSA branch in Japan, and according to his interview with The Guardian, that is where he realized what had to be done.

“You can’t wait around for someone else to act,” Snowden told The Guardian. “I had been looking for leaders, but I realized that leadership is about being the first to act.”

Since the leak, the government has been unwavering in its stance. The Obama administration defended the NSA, and FBI Director Robert Mueller went one step further to claim that these tactics could have prevented 9/11 and the attack in Boston. The Guardian also reported that the NSA itself will respond to allegations by publishing cases where surveillance prevented acts of terrorism in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“According to the U.S. government, the Prism program has already helped prevent multiple attacks against Americans,” Epstein said. “Although this is impossible to prove, evidence from Prism has been used in an enormous number of intelligence briefings to the president, so it has clearly been effective.”

Dr. Patrick Callahan, another member of DePaul’s political science department, added that despite the government’s current hardness, it will eventually be forced to determine the constitutionality of the program and adapt to those decisions.

“The president was quite correct when he said that we cannot have absolute security or absolute privacy,” Callahan said. “That is not a new insight Š—ê that has been the history of the dilemma of maintaining a secure state while preserving liberties. Historically, the country has rather consistently overreacted in the immediate aftermath of a new threat, endowing the state with too much new power to protect us, and then pushing the pendulum back in the opposite direction once the severity of the threat has been more adequately judged.”

Internet companies, meanwhile, decided to placate their users. Microsoft, Facebook and, most recently, Apple have all provided information about the number of information requests they received from U.S. officials since December 2012. According to The Guardian, Apple received the smallest number at 4,000-5,000. Microsoft and Facebook intercepted even more at 7,000 and 10,000, respectively. Apple and Facebook also emphasized that they assess every government request and do not automatically hand over their data.

Today, information is still surfacing and questions continue to be asked. Snowden sits in Hong Kong to protect himself, while the government spouts threats and determines what to do next. Callahan believes Prism might eventually go away, but this issue will not.

“The program may be killed,” Callahan said. “The felt need for it will continue, however, so it will be replaced by something else that will serve the same function.”