NSA Audit Reveals Thousands of Privacy Invasions

Posted on August 16, 2013 by


The Washington Post has revealed, via Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency has violated existing privacy restrictions thousands of times during the past five years. Barton Gellman’s work uncovers not only the number, but the types, of incursions. Unsurprisingly, a significant number have been accidental. Given the raw number of searches going on, it is indeed inevitable that simple human error, either directly or through a computer, will matter much. It is also true, according to Gellman, that in relative terms, there are few violations. When an agency executes millions, or billions, of searches and yields only thousands of errors, this is a very small percentage. If we estimate generously on both ends, with 10,000,000 searches done in a given year and that those searches yield 10,000 errors, we are looking at 1/10 of 1% for the error rate. I am assuming that based on existing government programs, this is phenomenally accurate.

While all of these factors may minimize our concerns, they should not do so fully. Gellman reveals the internal audit, which Snowden leaked, only covers operations at Ft. Meade and not in other data collection centers. We do not know how those centers compare to one another, so these errors may be representative or may not. In 2009, the N.S.A. quadrupled its own oversight staff, but the error rate is still increasing based on the most recent data. Also, some of these violations appear to be quite serious. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the N.S.A.’s activities, determined that one episode, in which domestic phone calls were co-mingled with foreign calls and then searched, violated the Fourth Amendment.

So, who is watching the watcher? Members of Congress are able to view sensitive documents that detail the N.S.A.’s actions and mistakes, but only in a secure room. They are not allowed to take the documents and they may not take notes. While Members may use staffers to aid them in their understanding, fewer than a tenth employ a staff with the necessary clearance to examine the documents. The end result is that a very small number of Representatives and Senators oversee the N.S.A. in a meaningful way. This is further complicated by the reality that the documents that can be examined are the result of the N.S.A.’s own internal reporting procedures. These procedures, according to Gellman, do not define “violations” broadly. For example, if the N.S.A. does a records sweep in the appropriate way, but unintentionally collects data from innocent, non-suspected people, it is not defined as a violation.

I am conflicted on these issues and I will continue to be so. As a proud American, who loves and respects our military and intelligence branches, I realize these activities, in some fashion, are necessary and I hope the vast majority of those employed in these fields are decent, upstanding, and patriotic. In order for us to be safe, we must monitor electronic information. At the same time, I am a dedicated civil libertarian. I believe in the Fourth Amendment’s sanctity and I am quite suspicious of a government that searches, even for the best reason, without some form of probable cause. As a Christian, who believes in human depravity, I am continually chilled by the potential evil that might be visited upon people by those seeking political, economic, legal, or personal gain.

In some sense, one might argue that we have an arsenal of weapons that are damaging, destructive, and deadly. We have weapons that can destroy cities and countries in a few minutes. We trust our leaders with these, so why not trust them with the electronic capacity to monitor us? The difference, I trust, is obvious. The N.S.A.’s capabilities can be brought to bear in the figurative dark of night, where none but those who directly suffer might notice. There is no way to hide a cruise missile or a drone strike. But when the government taps into my private electronic life, not even I will know unless someone decides to use the information against me directly. This temptation, to snoop without notice, to eavesdrop without ever being caught, to thumb digitally through internet data that might uncover my health, finances, associations, and communications, without consequence, must be overpowering to all but the most virtuous analyst. Integrity, of course, is what happens when we are unobserved. Let us hope the N.S.A. is full of the virtuous, for if it is not, the evil that might flow from N.S.A. would be staggering.