Barely a week before he leaves office, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has authorized controversial new legislation that grants America’s 16 intelligence organizations access to raw communications data from the NSA’s surveillance efforts.
The New York Times reported that on January 3 Attorney General Loretta Lynch signed new regulations that permit the 16 divisions — which include the army, navy, coastguard, CIA and FBI — access to “raw signals intelligence information.” In the past, information passed on by the NSA was filtered so that an agency would only receive information deemed relevant to their request for data. Now, they will gain access to the full content stash brought in by the NSA’s surveillance dragnet, assuming that their request is accepted.
Analysts can later apply filters to focus on the more pertinent data, but the government has enacted this change to give its analysts access to more atoms of data. The idea being that they may find useful information that they would otherwise not have gotten.
The legislation marks a major step back for the privacy of American people, millions of whose phone, email and other communications records are picked up by the NSA as so-called ‘incidental data.’ Those raw details can now be perused by 16 further intelligence divisions beyond the NSA, all without a warrant.
However—and this is especially troubling—“if analysts stumble across evidence that an American has committed any crime, they will send it to the Justice Department,” the Times wrote. So information that was collected without a warrant—or indeed any involvement by a court at all—for foreign intelligence purposes with little to no privacy protections, can be accessed raw and unfiltered by domestic law enforcement agencies to prosecute Americans with no involvement in threats to national security.
In the wake of the Snowden disclosures, President Obama enacted reform that applied some limits to the NSA’s activities — including restrictions on data capture for non-US citizens and rules for storing incidental data — but this revelation marks a step back on any efforts to address the privacy of individuals. That’s particularly troubling given the uncertainty around how Obama’s successor, President Elect Donald Trump, will utilize America’s intelligence apparatus.