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Electronic eavesdropping: NSA reports on its privacy violations

Responding to a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Security Agency has reported instances when it violated individual privacy. The NSA says ‘the vast majority involve unintentional technical or human error.’

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    National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
    Patrick Semansky/AP
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The National Security Agency has a lot to keep track of – all those electronic communications and other signals, mostly innocuous but some of which are critical to national security, collectively known as “signals intelligence” or SIGINT.

In the post-9/11 world of terrorist threats, unconventional war, and rapidly advancing technology, sorting through and making sense of all that SIGINT becomes increasingly critical.

So does protecting the civil liberties of individual Americans, whose private and personal information – from cell phone records to email communication – may get vacuumed up (or specifically targeted) in the NSA’s massive electronic spying efforts.

On Christmas Eve, the NSA released a report on privacy violations from 2001 through the middle of 2013. It was required to by a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The NSA release, which consists of its regular reports to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, is heavily redacted. Reports show data on Americans being e-mailed to unauthorized recipients, stored in unsecured computers, and retained after it was supposed to be destroyed, according to documents cited by Bloomberg News.

Some incidents involved deliberate misuse of government surveillance, the Wall Street Journal notes. In 2009, a US Army sergeant used an NSA system “to target his wife,” also a soldier, leading to punishment including reduction in rank to specialist. In another instance, an analyst in late 2011 “reported that, during the past two or three years, she had searched her spouse’s personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting.”

The NSA contends that "the vast majority of compliance incidents involve unintentional technical or human error.”

"In the very few cases that involve the intentional misuse of a signals intelligence system, a thorough investigation is completed, the results are reported to the [Intelligence Oversight Board] and the Department of Justice as required, and appropriate disciplinary or administrative action is taken," the NSA said.

"These materials show, over a sustained period of time, the depth and rigor of NSA’s commitment to compliance," the agency said in a statement. "By emphasizing accountability across all levels of the enterprise, and transparently reporting errors and violations to outside oversight authorities, NSA protects privacy and civil liberties while safeguarding the nation and our allies."

The revelation that the spying agency had been collecting and storing domestic phone records since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was among the most significant by Edward Snowden, a former agency network administrator who turned over secret NSA documents to journalists. The agency collects only so-called metadata – numbers called, not names – and not the content of conversations. But the specter of the intelligence agency holding domestic calling records was deeply disquieting to many Americans.

The Senate last month blocked a bill to end bulk collection of Americans' phone records by the NSA. Voting was largely along party lines, with most Democrats supporting the bill and most Republicans voting against it.

The legislation would have ended the NSA's collection of domestic calling records, instead requiring the agency to obtain a court order each time it wanted to analyze the records in terrorism cases, and query records held by the telephone companies. In many cases the companies store the records for 18 months.

Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, told news agencies the new documents "shed more light on how these spying activities impact Americans, and how the NSA has misused the information it collects.”

“They show an urgent need for greater oversight by all three branches of government,” Mr. Toomey said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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