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As Congress pushes cybersecurity law, privacy advocates warn of increased domestic spying

By Free Speech Rad... - Posted on 11 July 2012

In Washington, both chambers of Congress and multiple federal agencies are pushing for sweeping cybersecurity legislation that would allow more information sharing between corporations and the government. But privacy advocates say the country’s intelligence gathering agency, the National Security Administration, already has too much access to US citizens’ private data, and has abused its powers by engaging in widespread warrant-less domestic surveillance. On Capitol Hill, FSRN’s Alice Ollstein has more.

(Audio version available on FSRN's website)

TRANSCRIPT: Many Senators on both sides of the aisle are calling for the swift passage of a comprehensive cybersecurity bill, and Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to hold a vote later this month. One vocal supporter is National Security Administration director Keith Alexander. He said in a speech Monday that the NSA needs more and better data access in order to protect American individuals and businesses from cyber-attacks.

ALEXANDER: How do we share information between government departments? How do we share information between government and industry? And how do we do that in such a way that the American people know we’re protecting their civil liberties and privacy?

The House passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, in April. The bill places no limits on the kinds of data that could be shared, and would override existing anti-wiretapping laws, companies’ individual privacy rules, and the Electronic Privacy Act. If approved, CISPA would also block any Freedom of Information Act requests from consumers trying to find out who is sharing their personal data (and) with whom.

During a Q and A with reporters, Alexander dismissed allegations that the agency already stores and fishes through trillions of private communications as “misinformation,” and said the NSA is only on the lookout for cyber-threats.

ALEXANDER: They’re not reading your e-mail, per se, to see that. They’re looking at the stream of data that’s coming in in hexadecimal format, looking at signatures or ports or different types of activity. And if they see that activity, they alert off of it.

Yet three former NSA officials claim otherwise, and filed a motion last week supporting an ongoing lawsuit against the agency for what privacy advocates say is  “widespread mass illegal surveillance of ordinary people.” That suit was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of a group of concerned citizens. Lead attorney Lee Tien says it could force the NSA to disclose and justify what information they are collecting from Americans.

TIEN: The essence of our complaints has been that this warrantless wiretapping program is a dragnet. It collects communications in an indiscriminate fashion so that they can be scanned or reviewed, possibly at a later time. The surveillance continues today, and it continues to be unconstitutional.  

In his court brief supporting the lawsuit, former NSA analyst William Binney said the agency has the capability to search through its massive stockpile of electronic communications for individual addresses, phone numbers, watch-listed names, keywords and phrases, and he believes the agency is doing so. Binney, who resigned following the Bush Administration’s wiretapping program, also described the mentality of the NSA, saying that “the civil liberties preserved in the US Constitution were no longer a consideration” after the September 11th attacks.

These allegations have also caught the attention of lawmakers. Democrat Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall wrote to the NSA last summer asking how the agency interprets current national security law, approximately how many people in the US have their communications reviewed, and how many of those are “law-abiding US citizens.”

Despite serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senators have no access to this information. Last month, the agency responded by refusing to answer, saying doing so would “violate the privacy of US persons.” Tien says this case is a perfect example of a growing trend: where the government knows more than ever about its citizens, but citizens knows less than ever about their government.

TIEN: We hope that we’ll be able to hold the government accountable for what it’s done, or at least to get the government to be much more forthcoming about what it has done in the name of national security.

The NSA initially got the lawsuit dismissed by invoking the “state secrets privilege,” saying even letting the challenge go forward would endanger the country. But the 9th Circuit Court rejected that argument, and the US District Court will hear the case in November. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is also pursuing a parallel case against AT&T for turning over the private data to the NSA. According to documents released Monday by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, US law enforcement made more than a million requests last year to the nation’s major telecommunications companies seeking access to consumers’ geolocation information, text messages, and phone calls.  Alice Ollstein, FSRN, Washington


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