After Partial NSA Reform, Expanded Internet Surveillance Of Americans Emerges

The Obama administration expanded the National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international web traffic in pursuit of Internet hackers, the New York Times reported Thursday. 

According to documents the New York Times obtained from the trove dispersed to journalists by Edward Snowden, the Justice Department wrote memos approving the secret program in mid-2012. The memo allowed only for the agency only to track hackers with cybersignatures linking them to foreign powers. However The Times reported the NSA requested to track hackers even when they are not tied to foreign nations.

The Times also revealed that hacker signatures pull in a lot of data. Brian Hale, the spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, weighed in to the Times.

“It should come as no surprise that the U.S. government gathers intelligence on foreign powers that attempt to penetrate U.S. networks and steal the private information of U.S. citizens and companies.” He added: “targeting overseas individuals engaging in hostile cyberactivities on behalf of a foreign power is a lawful foreign intelligence purpose.”

In many ways the report does come as no surprise. After two years of journalists revealing document after document from the Snowden troves, we’ve become numb to reading about how the government is violating the Fourth Amendment and intercepting Americans’ communications.

But as Jonathan Mayer of Stanford told the New York Times, the Justice Department’s decision with this particular program ran “smack into law enforcement land.” He noted the decision made related to U.S. cybersecurity are not being made in public. And although at this point it may not be a surprise, that doesn’t mean we should stop calling for transparency in these cases.

On a recent trip to Silicon Valley to discuss cybersecurity at a summit at Stanford, President Obama spoke about the importance of transparency. With today’s report, it’s clear his actions do not align with his words.

As Ryan Gallagher at The Intercept noted, today’s report also calls into question statements made by intelligence officials about the government’s cyber capabilities.

“An attack on Wall Street or an exploit going against Wall Street — NSA and Cyber Command would probably not see that,” former NSA director Keith Alexander said at a 2014 Georgetown cybersecurity conference. “We have no capability there. Against everything that’s been said, the fact is we don’t have the ability to see it.”

In reflection of the many major recent cyberattacks, from those in the private sector against Sony to the sustained hacks on the State Department, it’s clear our government needs to be capable to track and attempt to prevent dangerous hackers. But those capabilities should be determined after public debate, not through a memo by secret lawyers.

The report comes just two days after President Obama signed the USA FREEDOM Act into law reforming the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices.

The New York Times said yesterday that by putting his signature on the FREEDOM Act, Obama was making a surveillance program that began under the Bush administration his own. The White House said the president had reined in the programs,  protecting both Americans’ privacy national security interests.

Today’s report underscores how surveillance has expanded under the Obama administration. Having phone companies store customers phone records rather than government agencies clearly is an important step toward reforming our current system, but it is not enough. If the president truly wants a legacy of achieving balance protecting Americans’ civil liberties and national security, he’ll have to allow for more reforms, not more secret surveillance programs.