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US privacy group sues NSA for Echelon info

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US National Security Agency officials may or may not be shaking in their boots in response to a recent onslaught of public interest in their alleged activities. In past months, the US Congress has cast a jaundiced eye on the Agency and may bring it somewhat to heel in the next session; and the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a Web site called Echelon Watch, which posts information and fairly responsible speculation on NSA's global eavesdropping network. Now the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed suit in federal court demanding public disclosure of internal NSA documents addressing the legality of the Agency's intelligence activities. "The charter of the National Security Agency does not authorise domestic intelligence gathering. Yet we have reason to believe that the NSA is engaged in the indiscriminate acquisition and interception of domestic communications taking place over the Internet," EPIC director Marc Rotenberg said via a press release issued Friday to mark the happy occasion. One issue is the unknown technique by which the NSA sifts the global electronic cloud for information it needs, and is entitled to gather. The Agency has refused to disclose the details on grounds that doing so would compromise its effectiveness; but critics suspect that this argument merely conceals the fact that the technology is inadequate to safeguard the privacy of ordinary citizens. We would not be surprised to find that such is the case. Still, we wonder what EPIC hopes to gain with this suit, beyond a bit of negative PR directed against an Agency which has already proven itself cheerfully insensitive to such pressures. It is highly unlikely that a judge would order the public release of internal NSA documents, though one might wish to examine them in chambers. This provides an interesting publicity situation for the NSA, which, if it were cleared of wrongdoing by the court, would nevertheless remain the favourite straw-ghoul of conspiracy theorists, whose paranoid delusions extend eagerly to encompass the entire federal judicial system. Indeed, a positive court finding would only reinforce fears that the NSA's malevolent power reaches all the way to the top. It is entirely possible that the Agency welcomes such speculation, if, as we suspect, its reputation as a lot of Bad Muthas derives more from the fears of the unbalanced than from its own record of accomplishment. ®

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