Earlier this week, a declassified Inspector General report suggested the National Security Agency’s controversial Internet and phone monitoring program scoops up much less data than we previously suspected, because the program has a narrower targeting list. If that made anyone feel more comfortable with the Surveillance State, news that the Obama Administration is planning to let the NSA share more of its data with other agencies might refresh their anxieties.
“The change would relax longstanding restrictions on access to the contents of the phone calls and email the security agency vacuums up around the world, including bulk collection of satellite transmissions, communications between foreigners as they cross network switches in the United States, and messages acquired overseas or provided by allies,” the New York Times reported on Thursday.
“The idea is to let more experts across American intelligence gain direct access to unprocessed information, increasing the chances that they will recognize any possible nuggets of value,” the Times continued. “That also means more officials will be looking at private messages – not only foreigners’ phone calls and emails that have not yet had irrelevant personal information screened out, but also communications to, from, or about Americans that the N.S.A.’s foreign intelligence programs swept in incidentally.”
Early in the NSA controversy, authorities asserted one of the reasons bulk data harvesting should not be a concern is that most of the information was dumped into storage servers where no one really looked at it.
The new plan to provide the data to even more agencies for analysis was, unsurprisingly, not well-received by civil-liberties advocates. “Before we allow them to spread that information further in the government, we need to have a serious conversation about how to protect Americans’ information,” said ACLU lawyer Alexander Abdo.
One troubling feature of the new standards is that much of the shared data comes from “incidental” surveillance that just happens to occur outside FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Protections for our privacy that restrain most other surveillance programs do not apply to the NSA’s bulk data harvesting programs. This becomes more of a concern when the data is passed along to more agencies, who intend to use it more aggressively than the NSA reportedly does.
Not only will more agencies see the harvested communications data, but the Times points out there will be less redaction of personal data. The precise details of the new standards will not be made public until they are “final and approved,” according to a spokesman for the office of the Director of National Intelligence, so we are told it would be “premature to draw conclusions about what the procedures will provide or authorize until they are finalized.”
Supporters of these surveillance programs note that the public was outraged by artificial barriers that prevented the intelligence community for connecting the dots on terrorist attacks, including 9/11. Removing those barriers results in a fearsome efficiency, with powerful modern computer systems sifting through gigantic amounts of data.