US President Barack Obama has defended US spy agency programs which trawl telephone and Internet data as a “modest encroachment” on privacy needed to keep Americans safe from terrorism.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said, seeking to quell public disquiet after two days of explosive revelations hinting at the scope of a vast and classified government data mining operation.
Obama, in San Jose, California, hit out at what he said was “hype” over reports the National Security Agency (NSA) logs details of millions of domestic calls, for possible later use in anti-terror operations.
He also defended a program called PRISM, in which NSA and FBI agents are tapping into the servers of nine US Internet giants, including Facebook, Google, YouTube, Apple and others, as they try to subvert terror plots originating abroad.
“This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States,” Obama said.
Civil liberties and privacy groups have raised alarm at the two programs, reported by the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, warning they are “Orwellian” and could be unconstitutional.
Obama said he welcomed the debate, but warned that the programs had previously been kept under wraps to avoid tipping off the US’ enemies and said they made only “modest encroachments” on privacy.
“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” he said.
He repeatedly argued that the US Congress had been kept fully apprised of the activity and had voted to authorize it. Federal and secret intelligence courts were also used to present abuse, he said.
The Washington Post, citing a career intelligence officer, reported late on Thursday that the NSA had direct access to Internet firm servers to track an individual’s Web presence via audio, video, photographs and e-mails.
The paper said the leak came from an officer “with firsthand experience of these systems and horror at their capabilities.”
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer was quoted as saying.
However, Internet giants denied opening their doors for US spy agencies.
“We have never heard of PRISM,” Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said.
Facebook chief security officer Joe Sullivan said the huge social network did not provide any access to government organizations.
Experts said the program could be so close-held that only lawyers at the firms or a small number of administrators might know about it, or it could be going on covertly.
“There is something deeply mysterious about this,” said Joseph Hall, senior technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights activist group.
Despite possible embarrassment over the exposed US surveillance programs, Obama, meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in California, raised the need for new “rules of the road” following the reports of a vast cyberspying operating by China.