In response to growing threats of cyber attacks, the U.S. government has expanded its cybersecurity program to scan the Internet traffic of a greater number of private sector employees than ever before, Reuters is reporting.
The government already had been scanning the internet traffic of defense contractors due to the sensitivity of their work and the potential risk to national security if the individual's network was compromised.
As a result of the program's expansion, which was announced last month via a White House executive order on cybersecurity, employees at big banks, utilities and key transportation companies will begin having their web searches and emails scanned, on a voluntary basis, to guard against cyber attacks and espionage.
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The information obtained from the scans will be collected by the Department of Homeland Security, which reportedly will use data to enhance the scans provided by the National Security Agency – the intelligence agency responsible for collecting and analyzing foreign communications to protect U.S. government assets.
On March 12, U.S. intelligence leaders warned that cyber attacks and cyber espionage, not terrorism, were the top security threats facing the United States before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Reuters reported.
After being gathered by DHS, the personal data will be transferred to a small group of telecommunication companies and cyber security providers where it will be processed according to government and industry officials.
The expansion of the cybersecurity program has worried some, particularly with regards to civil liberty concerns, despite the program being voluntary.
The executive order on its face does not weaken existing privacy laws, said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. However, any time a machine acting on classified information is processing private communications, questions over the possibility of secret additional functions exist, Tien told Reuters.
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"You have to wonder what else that box does," Tien said.
NSA Director General Keith Alexander said in a congressional hearing last week, "There is a way to do this that ensures civil liberties and privacy and does ensure the protection of the country."
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