News

Top Secret?

Newspapers reveal details about top-secret government programs, sparking a debate over privacy rights

June 10, 2013
GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. government has been collecting Americans' phone records. Some say this is an invasion of privacy.

In order to protect our country, the government gathers information about people or countries that could threaten the United States. But how much information should the government have access to? That is a question many people have been asking since last week, when two newspapers revealed that the U.S. government has been secretly collecting phone records and Internet data.

The Right To Privacy

The National Security Agency, which is part of the Defense Department, has been collecting data from communication service companies.

EPA
The National Security Agency, which is part of the Defense Department, has been collecting data from communication service companies.

On Wednesday, The Guardian, a British newspaper, revealed that the U.S. government ordered Verizon to hand over millions of Americans’ phone records to the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA, which is part of the Defense Department, looks at foreign communications in an effort to help protect the country. In this case, Verizon had to hand over records of every call made to, from or within the U.S. The records show when people called one another and how long their conversations lasted, but not what was said.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the NSA and the FBI have also been tapping into the servers of nine major U.S. Internet companies to collect emails. This top-secret program is known as PRISM. 

Are these programs legal? The 2001 Patriot Act gives the government the power to demand records from companies as long as the records are related to a national security investigation. But many people are concerned that the NSA and FBI have gone too far. Some experts say there has been an invasion of privacy that violates Fourth Amendment rights. 

President Obama has defended the security programs, saying they are necessary to protect Americans. "You can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society."

Whistle Blower

At first, no one knew who shared the secret information with newspaper reporters. But on Sunday, The Guardian revealed that the whistleblower was Edward Snowden. Snowden, 29, has worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and, more recently, for the NSA. 

Edward Snowden, 29, revealed details about top-secret government programs.

THE GUARDIAN/GETTY IMAGES
Edward Snowden, 29, revealed details about top-secret government programs.

Since May 20, Snowden has been living in a hotel in Hong Kong. He chose to hide out there, he said in a video posted by The Guardian, because the city “has a strong tradition of free speech.” However, the U.S. Justice Department said it is looking into bringing charges again Snowden. 

Snowden said he came forward because he thinks the public needs to decide if these programs are acceptable. “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” he told The Guardian. “That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

As Snowden waits to learn his fate, the debate continues. Must we trade privacy in exchange for security? According to Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, an author of the Patriot Act, the answer is no. In an article published in The Guardian on Sunday, he wrote, “I [believe] that we can defend our country and our liberty at the same time.”


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