President Barack Obama today forcefully defended the government's data collection activities, calling them vital to protecting the nation against terrorist attacks.
In remarks to reporters at San Jose, where he was scheduled to speak on the Affordable Care Act, Obama bluntly noted that Americans need to be prepared for some privacy tradeoffs if they expect the government to keep them safe.
"It is important to recognize that you can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "We are going to have to make some choices as a society. What I can say is that, when evaluating the programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent terrorist activity."
Obama's remarks are his first public comments since The Guardian on Wednesday disclosed how the NSA was collecting phone data records of all domestic and international calls made by every single Verizon customer since at least April under a secret court order. Since then, there have been at least two other reports, one by The Washington Post and the other by the Wall Street Journal, that have exposed similar large-scale data collection operations by the FBI and the NSA.
The Post story is based on a highly classified document it obtained that describes a program called PRISM under which the NSA and the FBI appear to be tapping real-time data directly from servers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Skype, YouTube and other Internet companies.
The Journal story, meanwhile, builds on the Guardian report by disclosing that AT&T and Sprint have also received similar court orders compelling them to turn over phone call records to the NSA.
The disclosures have stirred considerable concern among privacy advocates, academics and lawmakers about widespread domestic surveillance. They have provoked calls for a review of the government's data collection activities and also for more accountability and oversight.
In his remarks today, Obama said he welcomes a debate on how to strike a balance between the need to keep Americans safe while addressing their concerns about privacy.
"I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs," Obama said. He noted that his assessment of their usefulness changed after he had a chance to evaluate them. Obama said that his administration has "scrubbed" the programs thoroughly and increased oversight and safeguards. The "modest encroachment on privacy" that is involved in collecting phone numbers and call-duration records is worth the tradeoff because it helps prevent terror attacks, he said.
Obama stressed that all of the data collection programs disclosed over the last two days are operating under statutory authority and under strict supervision by all three branches of government. "They do not involve listening to calls, they do not involve reading emails," he said. Lawmakers have been fully briefed on the programs and both Congress and the judiciary have the authority to ensure that the programs aren't abused, he said.
"If people don't trust Congress and federal judges to make sure we are abiding by the constitution and the law, then we have some problems," Obama said.
The president was also critical of the leaks that led to the disclosures. Such leaks compromise the country's ability to go after terrorists, he warned. "I don't welcome leaks. There's a reason why these programs are classified." he said.
"If every step we are taking to prevent a terrorist act is on the front of newspapers or on television, then [the terrorists] are going to be able to get around our preventative measures," he said.
The National Security Agency has been revealed as secretly collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers, enabling the agency to build a detailed profile of every single Verizon customer.. Do you think the U.S. government be allowed to collect phone records and mine Internet data on citizens?
This article, Privacy tradeoffs are inevitable to keep nation safe, Obama says, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.