While four of the five speakers at the event said they were troubled by the surveillance programs, lawyer Michael Vatis, a former official at the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, said he wasn't overly concerned about reports of the NSA collecting Internet communications from nine Web service providers.
The Prism collection program, as described, appears to give the NSA little new surveillance power than it has always had, said Vatis, now a partner in the Steptoe & Johnson law firm. The NSA's longtime mission is to provide surveillance on overseas communications, and the Prism program appears to be an extension of that, he said. The NSA is targeting U.S. Web companies because much of the Internet's traffic routes through the U.S., he said.
Vatis said he had some concerns about the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, but he takes some comfort that the agency is collecting phone numbers and not the content of phone calls.
If the NSA and DOJ have strong procedures in place to protect privacy, as they say, then the data collection can help protect U.S. residents, Vatis added. "In the worst-case scenario, when an individual brings a suitcase nuke onto Wall Street and detonates it, the questions are going to be, 'The government had this technical capability to keep track of people, but didn't use it,'" he said. "That will be the scandal."
Critics of the data collection were surprised about the "breadth of the order" allowing the NSA to collect all Verizon phone traffic, countered Alan Davidson, a visiting scholar in the Technology and Policy Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former public policy director at Google.
The data collection raises not only civil liberties and privacy concerns but also business concerns, Davidson added. "If people don't trust these services, they're not going to use them," he said.
Vatis discounted the business concern. "Have many people stopped using Gmail or Yahoo?" he said.
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