According to documents obtained by The Washington Post, the National Security Agency broke its own privacy rules thousands of times per year. Many of the violations seem like unintentional infractions, such as a typo while searching telephone area codes, which results in a swath of phone records that shouldn’t have otherwise been scanned. It is unclear whether any of the wrongly obtained information was used for illegal or illicit purposes.
While White House officials admitted the validity of the Post’s records, the story itself doesn’t reveal any harms that came from the violations. “We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” said a senior NSA official, speaking with the White House’s permission.
The more concerning aspect of the report is that the court charged with NSA oversight, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, seems to have loose control over the spy agency. “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,” explains The Post.
In a separate front page story, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton told the Post,”The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders.”
President Obama has promised transparency reforms, but it is unclear whether the new reports to Congress for the yet-to-be formed independent review group will also report on the NSA self-audited privacy violations.