“I’m completely astonished. It’s hard to think of what remains of privacy in this country,’’ said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Internet data program, code-named PRISM, “is very disturbing. . . . These companies have an obligation to their subscribers and their customers to protect sensitive information.’’
Several of the firms named have denied any knowledge of the program and said the government did not have direct access to their servers. U.S. officials say the program cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen or anyone in the United States.
The outrage among civil liberties advocates followed a day-long furor over a report Wednesday night on the Web site of the Guardian newspaper that a Verizon subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, was providing the NSA with “all call detail records” for domestic and international calls by its customers under an order from the federal court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that the order appeared to be part of a surveillance program that began in 2006. Under that program, court orders are routinely renewed every 90 days so the surveillance is not interrupted, an expert told The Post and lawmakers confirmed.
In a statement Thursday night, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said the “unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”
The disclosure that a major U.S. phone company has been turning over the records of millions of Americans under a top-secret court order sparked sharply different views on the balance between privacy and national security.
“The question is: What do we need to do to be safe in America?” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “How far do we need to go? Do we have to sacrifice our own privacy and rights to do it? That is an important question that should be asked and answered constantly in a democracy.”
On Thursday, several lawmakers confirmed that the Verizon order was only a glimpse of a broader program of records-collection and analysis that dates back seven years. It was not clear whether other telecommunications companies have received similar orders and are turning over the same information about their customers.