Watchdog backs NSA foreign-spying program

The federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board calls the program "effective," but recommends some improvements.

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A demonstrator holding a poster saying: "End Dragnet Data Collection." Zack Whittaker/CNET

A US federal privacy watchdog deemed that a National Security Agency program that snoops on foreign citizens on foreign soil was "valuable and effective," claiming it helps protect national security and produces useful foreign intelligence.

The 191-page report, disclosed Tuesday night by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, was in sharp contrast to a companion report the group released in January, which said another NSA program that collected bulk phone call records provided "minimal" benefit, was illegal and should be shut down.

The watchdog added that some parts of the foreign-spying program raise privacy concerns, including the incidental collection of US persons' communications, and provided a handful of recommendations to improve the program.

Both Congress and President Obama asked the independent bipartisan agency, which is in the executive branch, to review both classified programs after they were reveled in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden last year provided The Guardian and The Washington Post with troves of classified NSA documents that unveiled broad spying programs and brought concerns of privacy during the digital age into the forefront of public discussion.

While the watchdog group took a negative stance toward the NSA's collection of bulk phone data, Tuesday's report provided a vindication for the separate foreign-spying program. That program, implemented under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, granted the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to authorize surveillance conducted within the US but targeting only non-US persons reasonably believed to be located outside the US. The Section 702 provision was approved by Congress in 2008, and was connected to a broader effort to bolster intelligence gathering following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Operation of the Section 702 program has been subject to judicial oversight and extensive internal supervision, and the Board has found no evidence of intentional abuse," the watchdog said in Tuesday's report.

An NSA representative didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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About the author

Ben Fox Rubin is a staff writer for CNET, covering component suppliers, mobile and general technology. He previously wrote for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. Ben grew up in Philly, where he developed an affinity for the Eagles and Rocky-style exercise montages.

 

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