WASHINGTON, D.C.: A fierce debate about Internet privacy and the limits of US executive power erupted on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila), in a victory for the young intelligence technician at the center of a global leak storm.
While 29-year-old Edward Snowden has gone to ground in Hong Kong and may yet face legal action for blowing the lid on Washington’s vast Internet snooping program, he has triggered the public battle he said he wanted.
A bipartisan group of US lawmakers, civil liberties groups and even one of the web giants accused of collaborating with the intelligence sweep separately urged President Barack Obama’s administration to lift the veil of secrecy.
“We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law,” said Jeff Merkley, one of eight senators proposing a bill to increase transparency.
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” he said, arguing this could be done without “tipping our hand to our enemies.”
Snowden’s leaks to The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers published last week revealed Prism, a top-secret program of the US National Security Agency to collect and analyze data from Internet users around the world.
US intelligence chiefs insist the sweep has saved American lives by helping agents thwart terror plots, and authorities have opened an investigation that could see the contractor extradited from Hong Kong to face charges.
But many inside and outside the United States were outraged by the breadth and secrecy of the operation, which was carried out under the broad-brush terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Patriot Act.
Under these, Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Apple have been obliged to secretly provide customer data to the NSA when ordered to do so by the secret FISA court, and last week’s leak embarrassed the web giants.
On Tuesday, Google wrote to the US Justice Department asking for permission to release figures on its surrender of data to surveillance programs in order to head off reports it has given the government a back door to its servers.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth warned other governments could “see US practice as a green light for their own secret surveillance programs,” tarnishing US credibility on the issue of Internet freedom.
Separately, a coalition of Internet and rights groups including the Mozilla Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Greenpeace USA, the World Wide Web Foundation and more than 80 more also demanded more openness.
The groups launched a website, StopWatching.us, and called on Congress to launch a full investigation.
“We don’t want an Internet where everything we do is secretly logged and tracked by government,” said Alex Fowler, head of privacy and public policy for Mozilla, which produces the Firefox browser.
The ACLU also launched a separate law suit alleging that another spy program unveiled by Snowden, one in which the phone records of millions of US citizens were seized, was unconstitutional.