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After an ex-CIA employee and former intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, leaked to two newspapers last week that the US National Security Agency has a top secret program that collects and analyzes data from Internet users around the world, a storm of outrage has gathered and continues to blow this week.
While US intelligence authorities insist that the data collection has saved the lives of US citizens by helping thwart terror plots, many people have condemned the program, as the operation, which involves the collection of some 1 billion records a day, constitutes an infringement of civil rights.
Whether Snowden should be praised or condemned, the ongoing public debate sparked by his leaks is worthwhile if it can help both the American people and the US government find a better balance between public safety and an individual's right to privacy.
This is not the first time that US government agencies' wrongdoings have aroused widespread public concern since the US launched a series of counterterrorism policies to enhance national security after the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001.
Last month, in a wide-ranging speech on foreign policy, US President Barack Obama outlined plans to limit his administration's controversial use of drones. Widespread concerns over the legitimacy and necessity of launching drone strikes on individuals outside the US and outside a war zone must have prompted the Obama administration to readjust this widely maligned policy.
The information-collection scandal this time has once again drawn the public's attention to the thorny issue of what is permissible to prevent terrorist attacks. Compared with the risks of conducting drone strikes that target specific alleged terrorist suspects, the ramifications of government-sponsored spying on individuals certainly weigh much greater.
The Obama administration needs to convince the American people as well as global Internet users that the spying is a must and helps in a direct way to safeguard public safety from clear and present dangers.
But it will have difficulty in doing so, as the bombing of the Boston marathon provides ready proof of the fact that extremists and terrorists, even when working alone, can inflict a heavy blow despite all the efforts that have been made globally to rein in terrorism.
The Obama administration may want to adjust the boundaries of its counterterrorism policies so that infringements on individual rights are not as expansive.
(China Daily 06/13/2013 page8)