The greatest new threat to American security is that thousands of Westerners will return from the Middle East and Africa with the training and intent to commit acts of terrorism. Given that it is inconceivable to detain all such travelers—who include reporters, humanitarian workers, and businesspeople—keeping an eye on them, for a defined period of time, seems a reasonable security measure. This involves tracking their phone and email communications—in line with laws enacted by Congress and approved by the courts—to determine if these returning Westerners are keeping in touch with ISIS or al-Qaeda, consulting web pages that teach one how to make bombs, or forming local terrorist cells. A major obstacle in proceeding are the major Internet and telecommunication companies—the high tech giants, including Apple, Facebook, and Google—who adamantly object to the new security measures the government is seeking and to many already in place. In doing so, they are placing private profits ahead of the public interest.
For decades, the communication companies, led by AT&T, played a key (and quiet) role in helping to protect national security. The government regularly gained access to their communication hubs and collected billions of phone records, email messages, and other communications to search for patterns that would identify which people pose a risk to the United States. This close cooperation lasted throughout the Cold War and intensified after 9/11. Edward Snowden shattered this cozy relationship by publicly revealing the details of these arrangements and by claiming that they led to abuses.