Week In News: Spying Suspicions Come To Light

Revelations this week that the National Security Agency has been running an extensive domestic surveillance program involving companies like Google, Facebook and Apple has caused many Americans to ask what's left of their privacy. Guest host Tess Vigeland speaks with James Fallows, national correspondent with The Atlantic.

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Tess Vigeland.

Verizon, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, all reportedly being monitored by a wide-reaching National Security Agency domestic surveillance program called PRISM.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about.

VIGELAND: The voices of President Obama and Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Hello, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Tess.

VIGELAND: Now, you know, I think it should come as no surprise that spies have been spying. And as you pointed out on your blog this week, it's not like terrorists abroad didn't already know or assume that these sorts of communications were being monitored. So it really is the domestic side of this that I think took people off guard.

FALLOWS: Yes. I think there are two things that are significant news in the still rapidly changing revelations of the past week or so. One is the actual confirmation as opposed to the suspicion that this kind of systematic monitoring program was under way. And the reason that matters is that only this year, the ACLU had a case thrown out by the Supreme Court on suspicion of wiretapping because the Supreme Court majority said, well, you don't really know this is going on. The other thing is clarifying the extent of the monitoring of activities by Americans within the United States.

VIGELAND: You know, it seemed like once the first story dropped this week, you know, there was a new revelation that came out it seemed like every few hours after that, a sieve of leaks from the administration. What do you think the next stage of this story might be?

FALLOWS: I expect that the next round of news will involve the now disputed terrain of what exactly the leading American technology companies - Yahoo, Google, Facebook, et cetera - did to cooperate with or to comply with orders from the National Security Agency, and to be part of this program. This is a matter of first order importance to these companies, even beyond the merits of this present case of American surveillance programs.

So much of their entire business existence depends on the idea that people in the United States and around the world will trust them with all kinds of data and will trust them to take very careful protection of this data. There are already, of course, complaints about commercial misuse of data. I think that could be a real business challenge to them apart from the political ramifications of this issue.

VIGELAND: Well, and, of course, if you're any of those companies worrying about potentials for regulation, it makes it kind of hard to say no to the federal government.

FALLOWS: Of course. And the companies have made clear that they will comply with lawful orders to disclose sort of that information for crime control reasons, for terrorist reasons, for other reasons. I think a benefit of this leak - leaks are sometimes very harmful - I think this one is on balance beneficial. Because in an era where almost all of our life can be surveilled and recorded one way or another, whether it's on the present cameras or the information we willingly and unknowingly turn over in our online activity - our cellphone activity and all the rest - a forthright debate about where the line should be drawn, on what is private, what is not, what governments can and cannot ask, I think that is a terrain we've been propelled into by these leaks.

VIGELAND: James Fallows is a national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much as always.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Tess.

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