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Washington Post: NSA Violated Citizens' Privacy Repeatedly

National Security Agency logo Like most people, you have probably been away on vacation or at the beach enjoying the warm summer weather. Last week, the Washington Post reported some very interesting and troubling news.

The newspaper reported about an internal audit by the National Security Agency (NSA), where the NSA violated consumers' privacy thousands of times while performing surveillance of foreign targets in the United States. The audit covered the period from April 2011 through March 2012. The newspaper obtained the document from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In plain English, this means that the NSA collected data about U.S. citizens it shouldn't have collected data about. That is a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Some of the violations were serious. Defenders of the NSA were quick to point out that many of the violations were supposedly minor typographic errors:

"In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt... In another case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has authority over some NSA operations, did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional."

When defenders of the NSA claim that typographical errors are minor, to me that is dishonest. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution is the issue here, however it was violated. Data was collected about U.S. citizens that should not have been collected. Period. You don't get rewards for good intentions..., or oops we didn't really mean to collect that. All violations are intrusive.

This highlights the problem when there are secret courts, secret laws, secret operations, and either insufficient or incompetent oversight by the U.S. Congress. Privacy is breached, the violations never corrected, and things get a lot worse. A related Washington Post article about the FISA Court reported:

"The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often the government’s surveillance breaks the court’s rules that aim to protect Americans’ privacy. Without taking drastic steps, it also cannot check the veracity of the government’s assertions that the violations its staff members report are unintentional mistakes."

So, things are worse. I cannot over-emphasize the importance for citizens -- voters -- to read the Washington Post article with comments by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton. Kudos to the Washington Post for this excellent reporting.

The Washington Post website contains several detail articles, including a redacted executive summary of the internal NSA audit. And based on the training the NSA gives its analysts, the explanations and spy language intentionally downplay, obfuscate the truth, and mislead Congress about the privacy violations:

"This document tells NSA analysts how to explain their targeting decisions without giving "extraneous information" to "our FAA overseers." Analysts are specifically warned that they "MUST NOT" provide the evidence on which they base their "reasonable articulable suspicion" that a target will produce valid foreign intelligence. They are also forbidden to disclose the "selectors," or search terms, they plan to use. In examples that draw on actual searches, the document shows how to strip out details and substitute generic descriptions."

Geez. Is it so hard to simply tell the truth? At this point, my trust level for the NSA is zero. Whatever trust I had in the FISA Court is declining fast.

When I think back over the last 10 weeks, it seems like one lie after another, followed by one disclosure after another. The CrunchGov blog summed it up well the recent history:

"It’s just metadata. It’s just metadata on all phone calls. No they can’t call up your emails. Well, yes, XKeyscore is real, and you should be happy we have it. No, there have been zero privacy abuses. Well, fine, in one 12-month period ending in 2012 there were 2,776, but that’s just proof of oversight and none were willful! Wrong. And no, there has been no harm to individuals. We should worry more about terrorism."

No harm? We have heard that the NSA shares the data it has collected with other government agencies, who then use it for their own investigations without disclosing where they got it from. This makes it difficult (or impossible) for people to defend themselves in court proceedings. That is harm. We've heard about one e-mail service shutting down, and one blog shutting down so far; in addition to forecasted revenue losses in the cloud industry. Lost revenue equals lost jobs. That harm is spreading.

So, not only do we have a secret court, secret laws, and secret operations, but the court that is supposed to oversee all of this doesn't have the resources to do the job. Hence, it cannot verify the allegations about the privacy violations. The privacy violations could be a lot worse, and/or more frequent. And, the U.S. Congress seems okay with this mess.

So, we essentially have big government spying run a muck. The acronym FUBAR comes immediately to my mind. If this bothers you (and I sincerely hope that it does), write to your elected officials today.


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