Recent Report Shows How and When The NSA Invades Privacy

New outcry has erupted in Washington over the National Security Agency's recently revealed audit report indicating the agency has unintentionally violated privacy standards more than 2,776 times. The report exposed the unsightly fact that many of these privacy violations occur every day as a result of human error, such as an accidental typo entered by a bureaucrat. In response, Justin Amash (R-Mich.) told CNN over the weekend that he is hopeful that Congress will be able to successfully respond with new measures to help curb the National Security Agency's surveillance power.

But Amash is overly hopeful. A previous bill he penned to help curb the agency's reach failed to pass through the House of Representatives last month, and it will be equally difficult to strike a deal in the legislature while the administration is doubling down on its promises to address the issue internally. 

The recent unsightly NSA audit report simply highlights a lingering tension in Washington between idealistic claims from both sides of the surveillance issue. The government continues to insist that "everything is under control" in ensuring privacy while it engages in massive collections of surveillance data. At the same time, equal idealism is put forward by critics who insist that security will not be sacrificed by increased transparency and surveillance cutbacks. Until these claims are tempered to encourage more candid discussions about policy, violations will likely persist without a significant change to agency programs.

The new audit report revealed just how powerfully a small instance of human error can violate American privacy. As just one example, a minor programming error in 2008 confused the U.S. area code 202 for the number 20, the international dialing code for Egypt, leading to the interception of a "large number" of calls placed from Washington. This failure was only made public with the Washington Post's recent exposure of NSA audit documents. 

But the agency can continue to hold the frightening possibility over the country's head that these violations are a necessary price to pay to avoid another 9/11. General Keith Alexander told Congress in June that NSA surveillance "provided government with critical leads to prevent over 50 potential terrorist events," a claim that can be difficult to back up without undermining U.S. security objectives, but critics claim can be easily exaggerated into scare tactics to expand the NSA's power. 

The problem is that the security community's built-in system of "checks and balances" doesn't appear to be doing enough to curb privacy violations. Under the at-times necessary cloak of "national security," there are few opportunities for meaningful checks on internal monitors. The unflattering new report does make clear that small improvements to computer, training, and reporting processes can help some of these unintentional violations taking place. But the real concerns at hand over privacy and safety are too complex to be solved by an extra review board or a better trained staff.

"The one constant," the White House said in response to The Washington Post's exposé on the controversial new audit report, "is a persistent, dedicated effort to identify incidents or risks of incidents at the earliest possible moment, implement mitigation measures wherever possible, and drive the numbers down." Echoing these claims, the NSA responded with sweeping statements to say that the situation is being addressed, and is sufficiently under control, and not in need of deep reform. "No one at the NSA thinks a mistake is OK," NSA Director of Compliance John Delong has told reporters. But, the nature of secrecy involved with crafting intelligence policies is that the NSA and the Obama administration are able to give the impression they're being responsive, without having to go into much detail.

“The NSA grades its own report card," columnist John Fund laments in the National Review, claiming agency overhaul would require more significant outside monitoring on agency programsHe references Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote in his book Secrecy: The American Experience that increasing scope and secrecy in U.S. intelligence programs has irreparably expanded the bureaucracy of the intelligence programs. “Secrecy is a form of regulation,” he warned. “At times, in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm’s way.” 

The Obama administration may wish to relay the feeling that everything is under control, but this approach fails to capture the complexity of the issue at hand. Full transparency may simply be incongruous with complete security, and until the security community, Congress, and president are willing to admit this, we can expect a slew of vague, idealistic promises to be flung about Washington that, at the end of the day, offer little meaningful change to show for it.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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