‘Spying programme meets privacy safeguards’

Washington, January 16

A new system for collecting domestic telephone records meets several privacy and civil liberties benchmarks, the US National Security Agency (NSA) said on Friday.

The programme, which some Republican presidential hopefuls have criticised because they say it puts Americans at greater risk of attack by Islamic State and other violent groups, has satisfactorily complied with eight privacy safeguards that include transparency, oversight, data minimisation and use limitation since its implementation in November, according to a report released by the NSA’s Civil Liberties and Privacy Office.

NSA ended its daily vacuuming of millions of Americans’ phone metadata, meaning numbers and time stamps of calls but not their content, last year after Congress passed a law reforming some of the surveillance practices.

A presidential review committee found that the bulk data collection, exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was an ineffective tool in fighting terrorism. The data collection was also criticised by privacy advocates and tech companies wary of broad government surveillance.

Under a replacement programme that took effect on November 29, NSA and law enforcement agencies must get a court order and ask communications companies like Verizon Communications to authorise monitoring of call records of specific people or groups for up to six months.

While some Republicans vying for the White House have criticised the shut-down of the bulk programme, other Republican contenders have defended it.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has defended his vote in favour of NSA reforms by saying new programme actually is capable of collecting a greater percentage of calls than the old one, due to technical upgrades.

Some privacy advocates expressed scepticism at Friday’s report, given level of secrecy shrouding the US intelligence community.

“The USA Freedom Act ended bulk collection, but this report leaves us guessing just how good a job it did,” said Robyn Greene, policy counsel with Open Technology Institute at the New America.

The other four privacy principles that have been complied with are individual participation, purpose specification, data quality and data security.