A Fundamental Problem with the NSA’s Domestic Bulk Data Collection

NSA = J. Edgar Hoover On SteroidsThe Big Picture:

“With a few hundred cable probes and computerized decryption, the NSA can now capture the kind of gritty details of private life that J. Edgar Hoover so treasured and provide the sort of comprehensive coverage of populations once epitomized by secret police like East Germany’s Stasi. And yet, such comparisons only go so far. After all . . . . J. Edgar Hoover still only knew about the inner-workings of the elite in one city: Washington, D.C. To gain the same intimate detail for an entire country, the Stasi had to employ one police informer for every six East Germans — an unsustainable allocation of human resources. By contrast, the marriage of the NSA’s technology to the Internet’s data hubs now allows the agency’s 37,000 employees a similarly close coverage of the entire globe with just one operative for every 200,000 people on the planet. In the Obama years, the first signs have appeared that NSA surveillance will use the information gathered to traffic in scandal, much as Hoover’s FBI once did.”

Read the whole thing. Domestic bulk data collected by the NSA conveys immense power on those with access to this information and will be prone to political (and financial) abuse. History demonstrates that the lure of such data for improper purposes likely will be irresistible. Hoover stayed in office for decades, aided in large part by the information the the FBI had collected on politicians of the day. Imagine what could be done with the data collected by the NSA.


Today’s Must Read on the NSA

“The NSA has become too big and too powerful. What was supposed to be a single agency with a dual mission — protecting the security of U.S. communications and eavesdropping on the communications of our enemies — has become unbalanced in the post-Cold War, all-terrorism-all-the-time era . . . . The result is an agency that prioritizes intelligence gathering over security, and that’s increasingly putting us all at risk. It’s time we thought about breaking up the National Security Agency.” Bruce Schneier at CNN.Opinion with practical suggestions for reform.


Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board Criticizes NSA Program

“Watchdog Report Says N.S.A. Program Is Illegal and Should End.” New York Times

Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s “Report on the Telephone Records Program Conducted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and on the Operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” (pdf; 238 pages). Also separate statements of Board members Elisebeth Collins Cook (pdf; 6 pages) and Rachel Brand (pdf; 8 pages)

Some additional background:

Liberty and Security in a Changing World – December 12, 2013 Report and Recommendations of The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” (pdf; 308 pages)

Supplemental Chapter on NSA from Professor James Grimmelmann’s “Internet Law: Cases and Problems” (downloadable pdf; 37 pages) offered on freemium basis.


Developments on the NSA Surveillance Front

The Case for NSA Reform – by Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner:

“[W]e were the primary authors of the USA PATRIOT Act . . . . [W]e strongly agree that the dragnet collection of millions of Americans’ phone records every day — whether they have any connection at all to terrorism — goes far beyond what Congress envisioned or intended to authorize. More important, we agree it must stop. [Today] we will introduce bicameral, bipartisan legislation that will put an end to the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate collection of personal information. Our proposal, the USA FREEDOM Act, provides stronger privacy safeguards with respect to a range of government surveillance programs. While the USA FREEDOM Act ends the dragnet collection of telephone records, it preserves the intelligence community’s ability to gather information in a more focused way, as was the original intent of the PATRIOT Act. Our bill also ensures that this program will not simply be restarted under other legal authorities, and includes new oversight, auditing and public reporting requirements. No longer will the government be able to employ a carte-blanche approach to records collection or enact secret laws by covertly reinterpreting congressional intent. And to further promote privacy interests, our legislation establishes a special advocate to provide a counterweight to the surveillance interests in the FISA Court’s closed-door proceedings.”

The USA Freedom Act: pdf

See also:

The White House on Spying: New York Times Editorial Board

Spycraft: how do we fix a broken NSA? – Reformers are still struggling to imagine an NSA that doesn’t overstep the constitution: Russell Brandon at The Verge.

Counterpoint: We Need an Invasive NSA by Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith



Cyber Law, Tech and Policy

General Interest


Cyber Law, Tech and Policy

“[A] structural approach, which focuses on preserving an overall balance between state control and citizen autonomy, seems to me more appropriate for evaluating mass surveillance programs such as the NSA’s … . [T]he appropriate question is whether the creation of a system of surveillance perilously alters that balance too far in the direction of government control, whether or not we have problems with the current use of that system. We might imagine a system of compulsory cameras installed in homes, activated only by warrant, being used with scrupulous respect for the law over many years. The problem is that such an architecture of surveillance, once established, would be difficult to dismantle, and prove too potent a tool of control if it ever fell into the hands of people who—whether through panic, malice, or a misguided confidence in their own ability to secretly judge the public good—would seek to use it against us.”