President Obama has increased the National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless surveillance of Americans on U.S. soil without debate, discussion or notice, in an effort to supposedly find hackers. The NSA is running surveillance on the international Internet traffic of Americans in search of malevolent computer hacking evidence, according to NSA classified documents.
In 2012, lawyers from the Justice Department sent two secretive memorandums giving the NSA permission to look into Internet cables, without a warrant on American soil. The search was for any data that linked to computer hacking from other countries, including any traffic that went to suspicious Internet addresses or contained malware, according to the memos.
The Justice Department permitted the NSA to only monitor addresses and “cyber signatures,” which are patterns associated with computer hacking, which could be tied to any foreign governments. That being said, the memorandums note that the NSA was targeting hackers without established links to foreign governments.
The discoveries which were based on documents that had been provided by former NSA contractor, Edward J. Snowden originally, were released to the New York Times, as well as, ProPublica, and have arrived at a time of unique cyber attacks that have affected American businesses, financial institutions, and government agencies. However, a greater scrutiny has been placed on the secret legal justifications for the order to widen government surveillance.
The Senate passed legislation this week that limits the NSA’s authority. The legislation involved provisions in the U.S.A. Patriot Act and did not affect the warrantless wiretapping. Government officials agreed to the NSA’s monitoring of suspected hackers as needed to protect Americans from the growing aggressive activities of foreign authorities.
The NSA’s surveillance runs into law enforcement issues, according to Jonathan Mayer who is a cybersecurity scholar at Stanford Law School. Mayer has performed research on privacy issues and has reviewed several of the documents. Structuring cyber security is a major policy decision in the U.S. and not a discussion that has been brought to the public.
It is unclear what standards the NSA is using to select hacker targets. It is hard to know who is enacting any particular intrusion, a criminal gang or a foreign government. The NSA is supposed to focus on foreign intelligence and not on law enforcement.
The agency is also in a position to collect significant information from Americans, such as trade secrets, private emails, and business dealings using Internet surveillance. Monitoring any data, a hacker is filtering involves obtaining the same information while the hacker is stealing it.
Another internal NSA memorandum says that surveillance through hacker signatures brings in a lot of information. The spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Brian Hale, stated that it should not be a surprise that the U.S. government has been gathering information pertaining to foreign authorities that may attempt to penetrate U.S. networks and steal private data from American companies and citizens. Targeting individuals in other countries that engage in hostile cyber activities for political powers overseas is a legal foreign intelligence purpose.
Obama’s call for the NSA to increase its warrantless surveillance program on U.S. soil supposedly allows the government to find cross-border communications involving Americans, if the target is abroad, in order to catch hackers. The NSA has searched for specific email addresses and phone numbers of foreign targets. Three years ago, the Obama Administration started to allow the agency to search communication streams for less identifying Internet protocol addresses or strings of harmful computer code.
The surveillance activity has been traced to changes that happened after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The government removed what was preventing intelligence and criminal investigators from being allowed to share information about suspected terrorists and spies. The barrier was put into place to protect American’s rights, due to intelligence investigations involving lesser legal standards than criminal inquiries. Policymakers believed that was too big an obstacle for terrorism investigations.
The NSA started the warrantless wiretapping program causing an outcry in 2005 when it was discovered by the American people. In 2008, the FISA Amendments Act Congress passed, legalized the surveillance program, as long as the agency only targeted noncitizens in other countries. In 2009, the Obama Administration started to put together a new cybersecurity policy, including deciding if the Internet had been distinguished between an obsolete criminal and a spy.
According to the White House National Security Council, in a classified addendum to a policy formed in May 2009, relying on legal authorities that make theoretical distinctions between terrorism, armed attacks, and criminal activity is impractical. This addendum was included in the agency’s internal files.
According to the documents, at the same time, the NSA was on a mission to protect military and intelligence networks against all types of intruders and purposed using the warrantless surveillance program for cybersecurity as well. The agency was given guidance on how to target hackers through the signatures from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to an internal newsletter.
According to an internal timeline, in May and July 2012, the Justice Department granted secret approval for the cyber signatures and Internet addresses. That authority was then tied to a pre-existing approval by the secret surveillance court and by the Justice Department that permits the government to use the NSA surveillance program to monitor governments in other countries.
The NSA had to have evidence that caused the agency to believe that hackers were working for a specific foreign entity, according to the limitations. The NSA complained the limitation created a large collection gap to prevent cyber threats to the nation, due to the fact that it is often difficult to know for sure who is behind the intrusion, according to an agency newsletter. Different hackers can use the same malware, hide their location or pretend to be another person altogether.
In 2012, the NSA started pushing to return to the surveillance court and gain permission to use the surveillance program specifically for cybersecurity. Then the NSA could monitor international communication for any malevolent cyberactivity, even if the agency was unsure who was behind the attack.
The newsletter stated that the broadening of the program was of the highest priority of NSA director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander. Nevertheless, a former senior intelligence official stated that the government has not asked the court to grant that authority.
In 2011, the FBI obtained a new wiretap order from the secret surveillance court for cybersecurity investigations, allowing the Bureau to target Internet information moving to or from specific Internet addresses linked to certain governments. To be able to carry out the orders given, the FBI negotiated the ability to use the NSA’s system to monitor Internet traffic crossing chokepoints operated by U.S. providers through which international communications come into and go out of the U.S., according to an NSA document in 2012. The agency would send intercepted traffic to the FBI’s cyberdata repository in Quantico, Virginia.
The discovery that the NSA and the FBI have widened their cyber surveillance adds another dimension to the recurring debate over the post-September 11 government broadening of spying powers. Information collected about Americans can get caught up incidentally when targeting foreigners and prosecutors may use that information in criminal cases.
Citing the potential for a copy of information withdrawn by a hacker, that may contain a lot of information about Americans, an NSA lawyer suggested that keeping the stolen data out of the agency’s regular repository for data, that is gathered by surveillance so analysts working on unrelated issues could not query it, are shown in a training document from 2010. That being said, it is not clear whether the NSA or the FBI have imposed additional limits of the information of hacking victims.
The FBI responded to questions for this article, working to show that its existing procedures to protect victims’ information acquired during investigations, is still in tact, but the FBI also said that it continually reviews its policies to alter them to meet the changing threats while protecting the civil liberties and the interests of victims of cyber crimes.
These actions and proposals have not been presented to the public. In February, President Obama talked about cyber security at a Stanford University event. Obama stressed the importance of transparency, however, he did not mention this change in which he increased NSA surveillance on U.S. soil, supposedly in an effort to hackers who may threaten national security. Technology often surpasses structures, rules, and standards that have been put into place, meaning the government must remain in constant self-criticism and be able to have an open debate concerning the issue, according to President Obama.
By Jeanette Smith
ProPublica: New Snowden Documents Reveal Secret Memos Expanding Spying
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