“WE WANT you to help us do this better,” asserted General Keith Alexander (pictured), the director of America’s National Security Agency (NSA), to hundreds of computer hackers at Black Hat, an annual information-security conference in Las Vegas on July 31st. General Alexander claimed that his agency’s mass-surveillance programmes had stopped 54 potential terrorist plots. He reassured the audience that their privacy was being protected. Still, there were a few heckles.
America’s spies have had a tough time since Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor, began leaking information that revealed the massive scale of NSA snooping. Indeed, just as General Alexander tried to charm the geeks, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published another leak by Mr Snowden. This one revealed a system called XKeyscore that lets the NSA glean emails, chats and browsing histories without specific authorisation. The intelligence agency confirmed the programme, but said it was lawful and essential.
The latest news came as the Senate Judiciary Committee completed its hearings on the NSA’s activities. At the event, Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, suggested there was little evidence to back up General Alexander’s claims of thwarted plots. Mr Leahy questioned the value of the programme that collects American bulk mobile-phone records. Robert Litt, the chief lawyer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that the White House was “open to re-evaluating” it—while keeping its “essence”.
The steady drip-drop of leaks seems to be wearing down public acceptance of mass snooping. A recent Pew Research poll showed that Americans are increasingly concerned about restrictions on their civil liberties resulting from anti-terrorism policies. “This is the first time in Pew Research polling that more have expressed concern over civil liberties than protection from terrorism since the question was first asked in 2004,” says the pollster.
In a bid to be more open about its practices, the intelligence community has declassified three documents pertaining to its activities: the secret-court order for bulk phone records (originally leaked by Mr Snowden), and two memos to Congress about the programme from 2009 and 2011. Though at times heavily redacted, they detail the steps the NSA takes to ensure its activities comply with the law. With more leaks from Mr Snowden likely on the way, the intelligence community will have to keep up its public-relations campaign.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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