Privacy panel defends NSA foreign data sweep

Ukrainian Internet Party activists hold a "tap the phone and internet lines" protest on June 27, 2013, outside the US embassy in Kiev to attract public attention to the violation of rights following revelations about the US Internet surveillance program by former spy Edward Snowden. Under the so-called PRISM programme, the US National Security Agency can issue directives to Internet firms like Google or Facebook to gain access to e-mail, online chats, pictures, files and videos that have been uploaded by foreign users. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY

WASHINGTON

An independent privacy review board has defended the National Security Agency's vast foreign intelligence data sweep efforts, despite objections from civil liberties activists.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, formally adopted a report that called the NSA's overseas surveillance a valuable and legal tool in thwarting terrorism.

The report, which was released to news media on Tuesday before the unanimous vote, came in sharp contrast to the same panel's rebuke of domestic surveillance efforts earlier this year.

The NSA's foreign surveillance "is not a bulk collection program. Instead the program only targets communications of particular persons," said PCLOB chairman David Medine.

CERTAIN PEOPLE TARGETED

"It is not a widespread collection of information other than (for) those who were targeted based on the belief that they're non-US persons outside of the United States with foreign intelligence value."

Board member James Dempsey agreed with those remarks while saying the NSA "needs to do a better job of articulating" why certain people are targeted.

The report said NSA foreign intelligence efforts are generally in line with the US constitution, while raising some concerns about unintentional data gathering of Americans.

The report appears to vindicate at least some aspects of the vast NSA data sweep, while sidestepping questions on whether privacy protections of US law should be extended to "non-US persons."

The panel was largely supportive of the NSA's handling of the programs authorized by Section 702 or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act the opposite of its conclusion in January of the huge telephone metadata collection effort by the intelligence agency.

SNOWDEN LEAKED DOCUMENTS

This effort has enabled the government "to identify previously unknown individuals who are involved in international terrorism, and it has played a key role in discovering and disrupting specific terrorist plots aimed at the United States and other countries," it added.

But civil liberties and privacy activists said the panel failed to consider the ramifications of the NSA's broad data collection in light of revelations from documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.

"The perception outside the US is that the NSA is engaged in mass surveillance of democratic nations, and I think there will continue to be enormous pushback," said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"There's a very strong perception across Europe that NSA surveillance has to be reined in. And in that respect the PCLOB report was not particularly helpful."

Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute said it was disappointing that the report endorsed "warrantless rummaging through our communications."

WIDER INTERPRETATION

"The board is supposed to be an independent watchdog that aggressively seeks to protect our privacy against government overreach," he said in an e-mail.

Elizabeth Goitein at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice also was critical.

She noted that the panel endorsed a "foreign intelligence exception" to the principle of requiring warrants and said that the interpretation "is far broader than what any regular federal court has ever recognised."

The panel examined the program dubbed PRISM that collects data from major Internet companies as well as a separate "upstream" collection via Internet backbone firms.

It said surveillance of foreign targets "raises important but difficult legal and policy questions" but did not make specific recommendations on this.

Instead, the panel said it would participate in a review ordered by President Barack Obama on whether foreign nationals should be accorded similar privacy protections.

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