NSA spying: Disconnected but accessible computers; objections to proposed changes

Again we tune in to news about NSA spying, including the latest revelation about its scope, plus the continuing fallout.

We wrote about a Der Spiegel report last month that claimed the NSA’s surveillance tactics include intercepting hardware mid-shipment and installing malware. Tuesday, a New York Times report said the NSA is using implanted radio frequency technology to access about 100,000 computers around the world even when they’re not connected to the Internet.

The newspaper says there’s no evidence the implants are being used in computers in the United States. An NSA spokeswoman likewise says: “NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against — valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements.” Documents from the Edward Snowden leaks show the United States has a couple of data centers in China where the insertion of malware into computers takes place, according to the Times.

• Ahead of President Obama’s expected speech Friday on what he’s going to do about a panel’s recommendations about reining in the NSA’s mass spying, there is some notable opposition to the recommendations. The Washington Post reports that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is objecting on grounds that the recommendations, submitted by a White House-appointed panel, would hurt the court’s effectiveness and pile on a lot more work.

A letter submitted Tuesday by current and former FISC judges addressed, among other things, the recommendation that the court authorize all national security letters, which senior FBI officials typically issue.

“The sheer volume of new cases . . . would transform the FISC from an institution that is primarily focused on a relatively small number of cases that involve the most intrusive or expansive forms of intelligence collection to one primarily engaged in processing a much larger number of more routine, subpoena-type cases,” John D. Bates, former FISC chief judge, wrote.

The court also objects to the call to stop mass collection of phone records, saying it would probably mean more requests to approve the collection of data on a case-by-case basis. (The judges must have missed that opponents of this mass collection cite Fourth Amendment rights that include the requirement of warrants and probable cause.)

• Speaking of phone records, another of the panel’s recommendations is the shifting of the storage of the call records to a third party, and making it harder for the government to access those records. Phone companies reportedly hate the idea, because among other things it could expose them to legal liabilities. It would also cost them money to implement a new system to keep up with NSA demands.

Privacy advocates aren’t keen on the shift, either. “The government would just be outsourcing the data collection to the companies. From a privacy perspective, the result will be the same,” said David Sobel, a lawyer for the Electronic Freedom Foundation, according to the Associated Press.


Photo: A White House review panel recommends, among other things, the reining in of the NSA’s mass collection of phone records from Verizon and other telephone service providers. (Associated Press archives)


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