Put NSA ‘violations’ in proper context: Opposing view
August 18, 2013
The latest disclosures involve incidents that were inadvertent.
President Obama has called for a national conversation on the balance between security and liberty, between necessary surveillance and necessary privacy.
That’s a good thing. It would be an even better thing if the discussion were fact-based, rather than contaminated by unreasonable fear, ignorance, misinformation and more than a little posturing.
We have gotten quite a dose of the latter since breathless headlines in The Washington Post of the National Security Agency breaking “privacy rules thousands of times per year.”
So, let’s parse the data. Let’s throw a few facts into the mix.
All of the incidents were inadvertent; no one claims that any rules were intentionally violated. All of the incidents were discovered, reported and corrected by NSA itself.
Fully two-thirds of the incidents were comprised of “roamers” — legitimately targeted foreigners who were temporarily in the U.S. (and thus temporarily protected by the Fourth Amendment).
Picture a cellphone call, not collected in the air in the U.S., but made by such an individual that is routed back to its home network before heading to its intended recipient. It looks every inch like a foreign call and is collected as such, until something in the call’s content or the physics of the intercept suggests that its origins are here — then collection is stopped and the inadvertent collection (the “privacy violation”) reported.
Other “violations” included database queries, searches of data already collected. The document the Post relied on reveals that in one quarter, there were 115 incidents of queries being incorrectly entered, mistakes like mistyping or using too-broad search criteria. That’s 115 out of 61 million inquiries, a compliance rate of 99.9998%. In terms of inputting selectors, those technical specs that identify a legitimate target for collection, the record is even better.
There are other accusations, easy enough to make in a short op-ed: that removing “extraneous data” from a formatted summary of “violations” is prima facie evidence of a coverup; that only 10% of lawmakers having staff cleared for this data hopelessly debilitates oversight in a system anchored for 40 years on the intelligence committees and their staffs; that the FISA Court being dependent on executive-branch data is something new and unique only to it.
Let us have our national conversation, but first let’s spread the skepticism a little more evenly. Let’s challenge all claims and let the facts take us where they will. After all, it is both our privacy and our safety that could be in peril.
Michael Hayden is a former Directo of the National Security Agency.