"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," President Obama said during a Friday press conference, addressing concerns about the National Security Agency's extensive surveillance program for the first time since its existence leaked Wednesday night.
Obama made an effort to reassure the American public that its Skype sessions and Google searches are indeed private, but gave only vague details on PRISM, the NSA's partnership with tech companies and phone carriers.
"What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers, the durations of calls," Obama said. "They're not looking at people's names and they're not looking at content. By sifting through this so-called metadata they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism."
Obama's remarks addressed the court order, first reported by Britain's The Guardian newspaper, that reauthorized the NSA's collection of Verizon phone records in its anti-terrorism efforts. James Clapper, the Obama Administration's Director of National Intelligence, on Thursday evening confirmed the phone records program, codenamed BLARNEY, and the PRISM initiative, which gives the NSA access to e-mails, phone calls, and search information from Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others.
Apple, Facebook, and Google all denied providing the government open-ended access to their servers, but did say they complied with specific government requests for information.
Clapper said the programs don't allow the government to knowingly collect information on U.S. citizens. Obama reiterated that the surveillance does not apply to Americans during his remarks on Friday.
"With respect to the Internet and e-mails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States," Obama said. "Not only is Congress fully apprised of it...but the FISA court has to authorize it."
The surveillance program is governed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
During the Friday press conference Obama said the NSA's surveillance efforts are monitored by the three branches of government. "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," the President said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society."
Obama said a "modest encroachment" on privacy is a worthy trade-off for preventing terrorism. There are plenty of people who disagree; legal challenges to the surveillance initiatives are already rolling in.