Former federal prosecutor Eric Friedberg conducted the first court-approved email wiretap nearly 20 years ago while investigating an international conspiracy to sell fraudulent cellphones.
"It was entirely novel. Even email was new," he says. "CompuServe, the provider, had no way to comply. They had to build a new port."
But today, Friedberg, an Internet intelligence pioneer who describes himself as "extremely pro-law enforcement," is among a growing number of former national security and law enforcement officials who are questioning the current scope of the National Security Agency's data-gathering programs.
"There's a legitimate public policy debate about whether it's worth a societal cost of having a permanent record of every person's telephone calls for a long time in a single place," says Friedberg, who grapples with this. Sometimes, he says, people's freedom "is protected by the difficulty that law enforcement has in obtaining records. If they can look at anything at the push of a button, abuses are more possible."
Last June, a series of news reports based on classified documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began documenting government surveillance programs that included spying on friendly foreign leaders, analyzing email and Internet use, and gathering phone records of millions of Americans.
The disclosures triggered protests, congressional hearings and dozens of recommendations to limit broad sweeps of data. Last week, President Barack Obama adopted some of those, calling for an end to government control over vast amounts of phone data. Instead, Obama said, the telephone service providers or a third party should keep the bulk records, "with government accessing information as needed."
But he didn't go nearly as far as a consortium of former NSA staffers and intelligence agents had recommended in their own January letter to Obama asking him to dramatically limit government surveillance.
One of those former staffers, Thomas Drake, says it is a "heavy burden" to have broken new ground with digital-surveillance software and techniques decades ago only to see those tools now being used to collect email, Internet use, credit card and cellphone data from innocent Americans as part of a system he considers unconstitutional.
"I wake up at night in a cold sweat just thinking about what's been unleashed," he says.
Drake was part of a team in the late 1990s that developed a system to collect and analyze billions of electronic records to identify potential terrorist plots. But unlike current practices, he says, the system created back then would have kept U.S. citizens' data private through encryption that could be unscrambled only with a judicial order. (continued...)
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