Privacy advocates call on gov't to rein in NSA

The agency's data collection has exceeded the legal limits set by Congress, advocates tell a privacy board

By , IDG News Service |  Government

A U.S. government board focused on privacy and civil rights should push Congress to rein in the U.S. National Security Agency's mass collection of telephone records and Internet communications, privacy advocates said Tuesday.

The U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by Congress in 2004 to be a watchdog of government antiterrorism efforts, should also demand that the NSA and other government agencies be more transparent about the data they collect, said privacy advocates speaking at a board meeting in Washington, D.C.

While two former government officials defended the NSA's collection of U.S. phone records and overseas Internet communications, other speakers told the board the agency has exceeded its legal authority, particularly when collecting U.S. records. Recent revelations about NSA data collection and surveillance show a lack of congressional and court oversight, said Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Congress needs to limit what information the NSA and law enforcement agencies collect because internal privacy safeguards won't work, Jaffer said. "You don't know what the privacy safeguards are going to look like three years from now, five years from now" when there may be another terrorist attack, he said.

Board member Patricia Wald, an appeals court judge, asked if the NSA should be able to collect large amounts of data about U.S. residents, then have data minimization rules that limit what the agency can do with the data.

"Minimization is one of the great euphemisms of our time," said James Robertson, a former Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge who's criticized current surveillance practices. "No one knows what it means."

The surveillance court now appears to be issuing opinions on policy in addition to approving surveillance requests, Robertson said. The policy rulings are not in the court's authority, he and other privacy advocates told the board.

Asked if the NSA could protect privacy through technological safeguards on the use of the data collected, some participants suggested a technology solution wasn't enough. Technology can only implement policy, said Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University.

As the NSA collects more and more data, it will find new ways to use it, said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "A threshold is crossed once the data is collected," he said. "There's no guarantee the safeguard will remain over time."

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