Independent Watchdog Set to Release NSA Report

Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 07:32 PM

By Cathy Burke

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An independent watchdog is releasing a much-anticipated report Wednesday on the National Security Agency's controversial "backdoor" spying on emails and communications of Americans.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board announced on its website that it'll both vote and release its report on spying authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; a preview was set to be posted on its website Tuesday night.

Section 702 spying is supposed to only target foreigners outside the United States, but the government concedes it sometimes trolls through foreign data searching for the communications of Americans  — a method known as "backdoor" spying, the National Journal reported Tuesday. 

"At this point, it's clear that the U.S. government is doing a substantial amount of surveillance related to U.S. persons using this Section 702 authority that's supposed to be directed outside of the country," Kevin Bankston, the policy director for the Open Technology Institute, told the National Journal.

"And that backdoor needs to be shut."

If the watchdog group comes out against the "backdoor" 702 searches, it could put pressure on lawmakers to ban the practice, the National Journal notes.

The Section 702 searches haven’t gotten near the publicity as those that fall under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which NSA uses to collect records on millions of U.S. phone calls.

But they are just as controversial, letting spies dip right into emails and other communications rather than being limited, as they are by by Section 215, to collecting "metadata" like phone numbers and call times, the National Journal reported.

According to SC Magazine, the United States targeted 89,000 foreigners or groups in its surveillance efforts in 2013 under Section 702 authorization, citing figures from a report last Friday from the Office of the Director of Intelligence in the United Kingdom.

The National Journal noted that both the Obama administration and lawmakers are trying to tighten Section 215 in an effort to ban bulk data collection, making Section 702 "a critical remaining battleground in the fight over federal spying."

The watchdog released a report in January about Section 215, though it didn't get the attention of President Barack Obama's own review group on surveillance issues. 

The National Journal explained under Section 702, the NSA not only looks for messages "to" and "from" certain targets but also messages "about" those targets.

"But knowing what communications are ‘about’ a target means the NSA has to scan through nearly everything," the National Journal writes.

A House's version of the NSA reform bill, the USA Freedom Act, would explicitly allow for the collection of information "about" targets.

Privacy advocates are pressing the Senate to strip the language out, the National Journal reported.

"I think it'll impact the debate in Congress by providing the public with a very good overview of how Section 702 works," Mark Jaycox, a legislative for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the National Journal. "Currently, there are still many questions about how exactly 702 is used."

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