The Privacy Implications Of NSA Searches Should Not Be Minimized

The Obama administration on Sunday attempted to downplay the damning revelations made in the Washington Post about the NSA’s broad data sweeps under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA).

In response, officials told the New York Times that “the agency routinely filters out the communications of Americans and information that is of no intelligence value.”

The administration’s response quickly jumping to the NSA’s defense is in line with its previous pattern of standing in front of the agency whenever damaging news leaked about its practices. Soon after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s first revelations were published last year, President Barack Obama staunchly supported the surveillance programs. His stance softened as public outcry grew, and he suggested reforms including an overhaul of the collection of telephony metadata program in January.

Almost half of the communications in a large trove collected under Section 702 that Snowden supplied to The Post last year contained e-mail addresses or other details the NSA identified as belonging to U.S. citizens. More than 65,000 references were “masked” to protect Americans’ privacy, but The Post found nearly 900 email addresses in the files that were not minimized that could be linked to Americans. In the same initial June 2013 speech, Obama said Americans’ emails weren’t being collected.

The government’s claim that information found to be “of no intelligence value” is filtered seems farcical when the report revealed that the Snowden cache included a photo of a young girl smiling in front of a mosque and school children’s academic transcripts.

It is reasonable that the White House would defend its agency’s ongoing programs. It becomes problematic when its vindications of the intelligence apparatus go so far that they’re wrong.

Government officials failed to realize the extent of the information Snowden took. For instance, as recently as May, former NSA director Keith Alexander said of Snowden: “He didn’t get this data.”

The NSA repeated that it has “very strict controls” on the so-called “raw” data collected by the 702 searches. But this weekend’s report challenges those claims.

One has to wonder if Snowden was able to get around the government’s “very strict controls” protecting this data, who else could and where it could be leaked next?

The Obama administration was lucky this time. The Post showed discretion. Although they alluded to personal pictures and medical records, they kept the identities of those caught up in the sweeps private. The reporters also made decisions to not hinder ongoing government operations, vaguely mentioning some of the national security gains the U.S. has made by continuing the searches under 702.

But especially with reports of another leaker circulating the public sphere, the administration should be focused on how these programs could be reformed effectively, rather than making statements they’ll need to dial back later.