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US National Security Agency releases murky transparency report

Clear as mud
Mon Jun 30 2014, 09:31

nsaTHE UNITED STATES National Security Agency (NSA) has released its first transparency report.

The NSA report, which it released on Tumblr, comes about a year after President Obama promised a more open government, but is not as open as some people, including Google, would like.

"In June 2013, President Obama directed the intelligence community to declassify and make public as much information as possible about certain sensitive US government surveillance [programmes] while protecting sensitive classified intelligence and national security information," said a note from the director of national intelligence (DNI).

"Today we are releasing information related to the use of these important tools, and will do so in the future on an annual basis."

Transparency reports are notoriously limited, mostly by the US government. Firms like Google have asked for more openness but have not yet got it.

In a blog post Google welcomed the report, but criticised its contents, saying that the release, the first of its kind, is too vague, and not suitable for comparison against service provider reports.

"The government has chosen to disclose an estimated number of 'targets' that it has surveilled, rather than the number of 'accounts' at issue," said Richard Salgado, Google director for law enforcement and information security.

"In our methodology, and that used by other companies, we each would count the number of accounts impacted by a particular surveillance request. The government could provide more meaningful transparency by specifying the number of accounts too."

Also disappointing is the government's lack of information about its targets. Salgado asked for more information in future reports.

Overall though, he welcomed the report and the changes that it represents.

"I'm excited to see how far this debate has come; a year ago almost no one would have imagined that the federal government would release data about its national security demands to companies," he added.

"These steps show that national security and transparency for the public are not in competition. We also hope that governments around the world will follow the lead of the US government and be more open about the national security demands they serve on service providers and put out comparable transparency reports. Congress, and other governments around the world, should build on these steps."

The DNI transparency report says that during 2013 the NSA had less that 2,000 orders approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). However, it does not provide further detail on these cases.

Also murky is the number of organisations that might have been targeted. Just 178 requests for business records were made, but since each of these will have been a "target" comprising an indeterminable number of people, the low number is not very telling.

In total the report finds the NSA admitting to requesting information on 89,138 "targets".

On Friday the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Greenpeace flew an airship over an NSA data centre to increase awareness around surveillance reform.

"The public needs to be brought into the Congressional debate around surveillance reform happening right now," said EFF activism director Rainey Reitman. "We're flying an airship over the Utah data center, which has come to symbolize the NSA's collect-it-all approach to surveillance, and demanding an end to the mass spying. It's time for bold action in defense of our privacy." µ


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