January 28, 2014
An article in today’s New York Times offers new and disturbing details about yet another data collection effort by the National Security Agency, this time in collaboration with its British counterpart: the “mobile surge.” According to a new cache of documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA and British spy agency have been developing a method to vacuum up personal data from so-called “leaky” phone apps, including a game player’s location, age, sex, and other personal information. Who knew playing Angry Birds on your cell phone could turn you into “a sensor for the world intelligence community?”
This revelation follows the extraordinarily thorough review of NSA’s phone data program by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), whose report was released last Thursday. Calling for an end to the program, which a majority of the Board concluded is illegal and unconstitutional, the report also described a little-noticed feature of the collection effort that allows analysts to search subsets of phone records in a “corporate store” of numbers without complying with strict privacy safeguards. PCLOB estimates the store may include more than 100 million phone numbers.
With new revelations about our government’s data collection efforts emerging on a near weekly basis, President Obama’s recently outlined agenda to reform NSA surveillance appears to be extraordinarily hasty and premature. The problem is not just that there is disagreement over the legality of the program, but that the president has forged ahead before all the facts are known. Quite simply, we need a newly anointed Church Committee, independent of the executive branch, to freely and without political or corporate influence examine all facets of our government surveillance programs. Short of this, it is unrealistic for the president to expect the public or Congress to have full confidence in those programs and their legality.