The revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the government gathers and stores data about the public’s phone and Internet use as part of the PRISM program in the name of national security has renewed debate on questions over security versus privacy in the modern world.
For the Jewish community, questions about necessary steps to be safe are more than just philosophical debates. Even in the U.S., there are threats Jewish groups face from anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence, and Jewish events often engage a higher level of security than might be seen elsewhere. Whether hiring a private security guard at a synagogue or coordinating with local law enforcement in advance of an event, officials are aware that questions of safety loom large for the Jewish community.
“A substantial number of attacks on Jewish institutions have been successfully stopped,” said Paul Goldenberg, executive director of the Secure Community Network, an organization that consults with Jewish communities on safety issues on behalf of many of the largest Jewish groups and federations.
He made it clear that those have nothing to do with the PRISM program, but they do illustrate that Jewish community leaders are justified in their concern over safety. In his opinion, that safety justifies having the program, although Goldenberg made very clear that he approves of the program only if it strictly adheres to legal standards.
“As long as these intelligence-gathering methods are within the law, I support them,” he said.
Protecting Americans from terrorist attacks is ultimately the goal, according to releases from government officials. In defending the program, White House officials have said that PRISM is responsible for preventing more than 50 terrorist attacks on American soil since its inception. The details of these planned attacks are not known but directly or indirectly it is not difficult to imagine that Jews would have been among the targets.
“The Jewish community is probably a little more understanding about law enforcement needing to have the tools to prevent hate crimes,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Of course, as the program was secret until recently, many of the methods and details of the PRISM program remain sketchy. The information released by Snowden and subsequently elaborated on by government documents indicates an intricate system for the gathering and investigation of the data since the program began in 2008, but new information continues to change the picture.
According to the latest released information on the program’s parameters, the PRISM program is aimed at gathering data on phone and Internet usage of foreign nationals outside the U.S. communicating with people in the country; officials can only hold onto information about citizens and legal residents if it contains foreign intelligence or criminal evidence. To access that data, the government must obtain a warrant from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by showing probable cause that getting the data will help prevent terrorism. But even with those restrictions, many Americans have expressed unease, and there is growing pressure for more information. There are also class-action lawsuits getting organized by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to stop the program entirely.
Goldenberg said that it may be hard to argue with the program’s success during the past several years. He compared it to his own experience as a law enforcement executive who had executed many search warrants and wiretaps in efforts to prevent crime.
“I don’t think it’s happenstance that this nation has not seen more catastrophic attacks,” he said. “I believe in the system and working in the system,” adding “as long as it’s done with due process.”
In addition to the scope of the data collection, discussion of the PRISM program also has focused on Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong before the information he revealed became public.
This weekend, the U.S. formally charged Snowden with espionage and related crimes and requested that Chinese authorities detain him, but instead Snowden was allowed to fly commercially to Moscow and his whereabouts as of this writing are unknown. He is expected to seek asylum in Ecuador, the same country that provided shelter to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy. In fact WikiLeaks has released statements announcing that it has been advising Snowden.
For the most part it’s hard to say yet where the debate over the PRISM program will go.
“It’s very hard to draw judgment on something that’s still unfolding,” Halber said.
Official opinions and statements on the particulars of the program will likely evolve as time passes, Goldenberg said, but for now, it appears that the program has not been abused and has been used to good effect.
“We’re a nation of checks and balances, and I’m very grateful for that,” he said.