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NSA chief talks surveillance tactics over dinner

A director from the Stanford Center for Internet and Society sits down to dinner with NSA Director Keith Alexander to talk about leaked documents and government spying.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read
NSA Director Keith Alexander gives a talk during Black Hat 2013. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

When someone dines with Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, I'd like to know who pays the tab.

In a contributing article in Forbes, Stanford Center for Internet and Society Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick talks about what it was like to meet the man in charge of the villainized security agency. Over dinner they discussed the NSA's surveillance tactics, document declassifying, and more.

Granick writes that Alexander was engaging and that the conversation gave her an appreciation for the "fundamental difference in perspective between defenders and critics of the NSA's surveillance program."

Alexander has been NSA director since 2005, when he was appointed to the position by the George W. Bush administration. Ever since top-secret NSA documents were leaked to the press in June revealing that the agency had been spying on people via metadata from Internet companies and cellular records, Alexander has maintained that the goal of the program has been to protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks.

During dinner, Alexander reiterated this notion, saying "never again." Alexander also insisted that the NSA does not "target" U.S. citizens. However, this seems at odds with recently revealed information that shows the NSA created a "secret backdoor" to search its massive databases for U.S. citizens' confidential phone calls and e-mail messages without a warrant.

Alexander told Granick that the government is currently declassifying various documents associated with the leaks. One of those documents, now declassified, discusses NSA cell phone surveillance tactics called the Section 215 Program. According to Granick, the NSA claims to have queried fewer than 300 people in this program in 2012. But, as Granick took a closer look at the document, she realized that NSA analysts could feasibly have queried up to 19 million phone records in 2012.

Granick writes of the mindset of those who seem unconcerned about recent revelations, and suggests that mass surveillance is a slippery slope: "When the justification [for mass surveillance] is counterterrorism, and that's your only concern, there is no countervailing interest that justifies slowing you down or stopping you."