The Obama Administration secretly granted the National Security Agency more power to tap internet connections without a warrant in an effort to combat hackers overseas, according to a new set of leaked documents published Thursday.
The documents, provided to the New York Times and ProPublica by ex-agency contractor Edward Snowden, reveal the expansion of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, allowing the agency to listen in on domestic and international Web traffic that could link to hacks launched abroad.
News of the program expansion comes just two days after the Senate passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act, an NSA reform bill that modified the agency’s phone data collection practices.
The “worst thing” the N.S.A. could do is use its surveillance system to target an American hacker.
CREDIT: The New York Times
According to two secret memos from 2012, the NSA attempted to get Justice Department authority to target hackers even when a threat connection couldn’t be made. The department, however, limited the NSA to only monitoring IP addresses and digital footprints or patterned online behavior common to cyberattacks known as “cybersignatures.”
The wiretapping program falls under a section of the Patriot Act that wasn’t touched by the newly inked USA Freedom Act, which primarily addressed how the government collects and searches phone metadata.
The documents show that government officials were aware of the privacy and civil liberties concerns raised by monitoring the open internet — and have “complicated” the program’s operations. But the broadening of the NSA’s online surveillance program has become even more crucial now that armed terrorist attacks and cyberattacks have become indistinguishable, according to the documents.
The N.S.A. wants expanded power to target foreign hackers when attribution is hard; would not be hard/strong selectors.
CREDIT: The New York Times
Cyberattacks are certainly a growing threat domestically and abroad, ranging from simple government Twitter account hacks to the notorious Sony hack that exposed thousands of the production studio’s internal documents last year.
Preventing similar attacks are a key White House concern, with Obama repeatedly emphasizing the need to enhance the nation’s cyber defenses through privacy legislation and funneling money into cybersecurity education since the Sony attack.
But the president and law enforcement agency remained quiet on the change to the NSA’s spy abilities, despite a roaring public debate over government surveillance and transparency. In a Stanford University speech earlier this year, Obama said:
“The technology so often outstrips whatever rules and structures and standards have been put in place, which means that government has to be constantly self-critical and we have to be able to have an open debate about it.”
That debate, while making progress, hasn’t yet happened at the level many civil liberties advocates would like. Even with the passage of USA Freedom — a bill privacy supporters admit is a huge compromise and leaves room for improvement — the issue of government transparency around national intelligence procedures has remained shrouded.
As Cindy Cohn, executive director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in response to this week’s Senate vote, “[U]ntil we actually address [transparency] and the culture of secrecy in the government, we won’t have true reform.”