NSA Cyber-Snooping Attacked on Three Fronts in Single Week

NEWS ANALYSIS: It's been a tough week for the National Security Agency, as its cyber-surveillance activities are slammed by a federal judge, a group of industry executives and, most significantly, the president's own advisers.

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A report released by a hand-picked panel of presidential advisers on Dec. 18 is only the latest blow delivered to the National Security Agency during the week leading up to Christmas. The 300-page report was compiled by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

The group was chartered to study the activities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies and produced a list of 46 recommendations to change the structure and operations of the NSA and several related agencies.

While all of the recommendations are significant, the ones of greatest importance include changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, including the formation of a Public Interest Advocate to be created by Congress to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties in proceedings before the FISC.

The panel also called for limits on the court's power to compel private organizations to produce information, for increased transparency in the court's operations and new procedures for the selection of FISC judges.

Some of the moves were sweeping, including a call to end the storage of metadata by the agency, a call to split the NSA from U.S. Cyber Command, and allowing the director of the NSA to be a civilian. In addition, the panel called for better protection of information to prevent thefts and leaks of classified information such as those carried out by former government contract employee Edward Snowden.

The panel's report is a major blow to the agency that once seemed sacrosanct. It's only the latest of several headaches that the NSA has endured in rapid succession. On Dec. 17, a group of technology company executives met with President Obama and, by all accounts, raised hell about government snooping on private corporate networks and U.S. citizens' communications and data. The executives said that the government surveillance was making it difficult to do business in an increasingly connected world.

That was preceded on Dec. 16 by a decision in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which held that the collection of phone metadata by the NSA is an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systemic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it with prior judicial approval," wrote Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The judge noted in his decision that the plaintiffs in the case would suffer irreparable harm without relief in their suit against the government. He also said that they have a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim. However, the judge issued a temporary stay of his injunction, citing national security implications.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...