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U.S. government illegally spying, audit confirms

Categories Biometrics News  |  Surveillance

A top secret internal audit conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) found the agency broke its own privacy rules and exceeded its legal authority thousands of times by spying on U.S. citizens illegally since it was given expanded powers in 2008, according to a recent report in the Washington Post.

The audit found that most of the privacy breaches involved unauthorized surveillance of U.S. citizens and foreign intelligence targets.  The newspaper claimed the audit found that most breaches ranged from significant violations of law to typographical errors that led to the unintended interception of e-mail and telephone calls within the United States.

The audit was disclosed to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, who fled to Hong Kong and leaked top secret intelligence documents to the Guardian newspaper.  Snowden has been charged by the U.S. with espionage and is currently in Russia, where he was granted asylum.

As reported previously in BiometricUpdate.com, the U.S. Government has been reeling from Snowden’s disclosures and accusations that it has been operating illegal surveillance programs.  As a result, U.S. citizens have lost more faith in their government, while the government itself has suffered embarrassment and a loss of respect and prestige.

As consequence, President Obama last week directed his administration to work with Congress to reform U.S.surveillance programs, in order to make the intelligence community more transparent.

Obama held a series of meetings with leaders in the intelligence community, during which he emphasized the importance of transparency and openness.  According to the White House, Obama directed the intelligence community to declassify relevant materials to the maximum extent possible, without undermining national security.  He also has instructed the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review where counter-terrorism efforts and the country’s democratic values come into tension.

His actions are a direct response to allegations that the United States has operated a secret and illegal Internet surveillance program.  Both the Guardian and the Washington Post have reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) operated a classified program entitled PRISM that enables U.S. intelligence services to access social media content from Google, Facebook, Apple and other Internet giants.

The Guardian claimed to have obtained a 41-paged PowerPoint presentation from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that stated that many popular Internet services had direct back doors accessible to the NSA, permitting the U.S. Government to spy and eavesdrop on an unprecedented number of its own citizens.

Alleged NSA internal slides included in the disclosures purported to show that the NSA could unilaterally access data and perform “extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information” with examples including e-mail, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP chats such as Skype, file transfers, and social networking details.

Government officials however have disputed some aspects of these media reports and have defended the program by asserting PRISM cannot be used on domestic targets without a warrant, that it has helped to prevent acts of terrorism, and that it receives independent oversight from the federal government’s executive, judicial and legislative branches.

Social network operators also have denied that they provide the U.S. Government with access to their services without court-approved authorization.  In a statement, Microsoft stated: “We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.”

Officials at Yahoo stated that the search engine and news site “takes users’ privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network. Of the hundreds of millions of users we serve, an infinitesimal percentage will ever be the subject of a government data collection directive.”

As noted in a previous BiometricUpdate.com item, Facebook said that it does not “provide any government organization with direct access to its servers. When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law.”

In a statement, Google said that “cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a backdoor for the government to access private user data. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.”

Apple categorically denies the existence of PRISM.  In a statement the consumer electronics firm said: “We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.”

Polling firms however however found that the American public remains convinced that its government is spying on law-abiding citizens through Internet, e-mail and social network surveillance.

According to a number of polls, Americans are strongly opposed to being spied on by their own government. A Guardian/PPP poll taken June 10-11 revealed that 50 percent of Americans oppose the government collecting their phone and Internet meta-data, while only 40 percent approve. A Gallup poll taken on June 10-11 reported that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of the NSA’s domestic surveillance, while only 37 percent expressed their approval. In a FOX News poll conducted between June 22-24, 61 percent of Americans disapproved of how the Administration “is handling the government’s classified surveillance program that collects the phone and Internet records of U.S. citizens.”

Since Internet-based social networking sites consist of millions of images of faces that could potentially be mined using facial recognition software, and also chronologies of commentary, events, interests and even detailed travel itineraries, citizens are rightly concerned and want more steps taken to ensure that civil liberty and privacy protections are considered.

Consequently, Obama claimed he was committed to finding a balance between “protecting our security and preserving our freedoms” and announced plans for increased transparency and reforms, in order to give the public confidence that the government’s intelligence programs have strong oversight and clear protections against abuse.

Civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation however have taken umbrage with Obama’s position, claiming that the U.S. Government has been extremely disingenuous concerning its surveillance programs, since the intelligence community has been reading e-mail of surveillance without warrants for years, while government officials have claimed otherwise.

Research disclosures from the Biometric Research Group, Inc., publisher of BiometricUpdate.com, foretold of such a scenario earlier this year.  The research vendor went on record to note that the biggest risk surrounding government surveillance is that while it can be rightfully and effectively employed to mitigate crime and terrorism, surveillance operations are now employed in a fashion that no longer require warrants based upon “probable cause”. Further, many metadata gathering operations cannot be constrained by “search and seizure” rules.

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