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Keeping Track Of The 'Security-Industrial Complex'


Here in the United States, the NSA revelations are also prompting concerns about privacy as well as questions about the involvement of private companies in government spying. Robert O'Harrow, an investigative reporter with The Washington Post wrote in his 2005 book, "No Place to Hide", about what he calls the security industrial complex in this country. Mr. O'Harrow believes the NSA's dealings with private companies are much wider than what we've been told.

ROBERT O'HARROW: We're told that there's nine companies involved in that program called Prism at the NSA. My contention is it's probably hundreds or thousands of companies that are fueling this. We know data brokers sell information about all of us to the government. We need to know the parameters of that. We need to have an honest discussion about how many telephone companies are involved in sharing data.

We know that there is hundreds of millions of bits of meta data from one company, but it seems almost a certainty that it's not only the telecoms, but the cell phone providers, the Internet service providers. I think the scale of what is actually happening here, logically, I think it's safe to say that it's much, much greater and broader and deeper than has been disclosed thus far.

SIMON: A poll I saw last week, I quoted on it from this show, from USC Annenberg School suggested there's a real generational difference. People above the age of 34 and over can think this kind of think is really potentially appalling and people in that target group between 18 and 34 essentially say, well, we've grown up this way. What do you expect?

O'HARROW: Well, they have grown up this way and we're all getting used to these conveniences and discounts of the services. I think for anybody to underestimate the power of access to data, about 300 million American's, of data that is so granular - they call it meta data now - about our lives and our habits, is completely missing the boat.

We're in the midst of a data revolution. There's so much information that if it's pooled as it is and it's accessible, which it is, to corporations and increasingly to government, of the NSA and as we know has access to huge amounts of information and telephone calls, that's a source of power that's incredible. And in our system of government, that power needs to be checked.

SIMON: Well, what about those young people that have given it some thought and said look, they're collecting the data but I have no reason to think it's being used against me.

O'HARROW: I still think that that's on the edge of being foolish. There's no reason to advocate because it feels good now. The responsibility for insuring, not just to them not but for future generations, that we have a set of laws and rules and regulations in place that not only offer transparency to how this information's being used, but will hold government officials in particular and private corporations, to account for misusing it.

SIMON: The bottom line for many Americans is are we safer. Are we?

O'HARROW: Frankly, there is actually no way to know because so much of this is happening in secret. We've been offered evidence of cases where the data has come into play, and by the way, of course it is going to help and I think that it should be used to help national security, but I think that there's a better way where the government is allowed to use these tools and these resources, the data about all of us perhaps, but it has to be done, I would argue, with very strict controls and better transparency.

And until the young people and us older folk alike really grasp the enormity of this data revolution, we're not going to be able to have a serious debate about what those checks and balances ought to be.

SIMON: Robert O'Harrow, investigative reporter with the Washington Post and author of the book, "No Place to Hide." Thanks for being with us.

O'HARROW: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMARTPHONE TONES) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.