The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday launched a review of whether the country uses optimally advancements in technology to protect its national security while preventing unauthorized disclosure and maintaining public trust.
Surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency has been at the center of a privacy controversy after its former contractor, Edward Snowden, released in June certain documents that suggested large scale collection of phone metadata and information from the Internet by the agency.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper has been directed to form the new Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which is to brief Obama on its interim findings within 60 days of the establishment of the group. A final report and recommendations are to be submitted through Clapper to the president no later than Dec. 15.
The constitution of the body including the number of members it will have was not disclosed.
The review group “will assess whether, in light of advancements in communications technologies, the United States employs its technical collection capabilities in a manner that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust,” according to a memorandum on the White House website.
Obama said Friday that his administration will appoint an independent board to review the country’s surveillance programs, and also add a privacy advocate to defend privacy in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when agencies ask the court for new surveillance orders. Obama also said he will work with the U.S. Congress to limit data collection by the NSA under the Patriot Act.
A few drips in the ocean
The U.S. National Security Agency “touches” about 1.6 percent of daily Internet traffic, of which only 0.025 percent is selected for review, the agency said in its defense in a brief on Friday.
Citing figures from an unnamed tech provider, the NSA said the Internet carries 1,826 petabytes of information per day, of which the agency’s analysts in effect look at 0.00004 percent or “less than one part in a million.” The agency said its total collection added up to an area smaller than a dime in the standard basketball court of global communications.
U.S. telecommunications providers are compelled by court order to provide NSA with metadata about telephone calls to, from or within the country, NSA said in the brief. The purpose of the collection, under the NSA’s Business Records FISA program, is to identify the “U.S. nexus of a foreign terrorist threat to the homeland.” But the government “cannot conduct substantive queries of the bulk records for any purpose other than counterterrorism,” it added.
NSA said it is authorized under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to target non-U.S. persons who are reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S. The controversial part, criticized by many rights groups, is that the communications of U.S. persons are sometimes incidentally acquired in targeting the foreign entities.
In those cases, approved minimization procedures, which control the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of any information of a U.S. person, are used to protect the privacy of that person, NSA said.
“We do not need to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security; both are integral to who we are as Americans,” the unsigned document stated.