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HOLD THE FRONT PAGE: US govt backs mass spying by US govt

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The US government's Privacy and Civil Liberty Oversight Board (PCLOB) has dealt a blow to opponents of the NSA's surveillance programs in a new report that reaffirms the controversial Section 702 program.

The PCLOB said in its official review of the program that 702 represented a "considerable value" to the government despite some concerns about the scope with which the program has been collecting information on US citizens.

Section 702 is part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which as the name suggests is not allowed to be used against US persons. Yet Americans can end up being snooped on by systems targeting foreigners – consider a US citizen answering a call from a relative abroad, for instance.

"The Board recognizes the considerable value that the Section 702 program provides in the government’s efforts to combat terrorism and gather foreign intelligence, and finds that at its core, the program is sound," reads the report (PDF), which doesn't mention specific acts of terrorism thwarted.

"However, some features outside of the program’s core, particularly those impacting US persons, raise questions regarding the reasonableness of the program."

The board noted several key issues and recommendations for the program, including stricter controls on data queries and analysis of how data is gathered, as well as stricter regulations over the collection of data on US citizens.

In the end, however, the PCLOB maintained the importance of Section 702, a controversial portion of the FISA Amendments Act which has been used for mass electronic surveillance of the planet and the large-scale collection of data from telcos worldwide.

"This is a complex program, and, in the wake of the unauthorized disclosures about the program, there has been a great deal of misinformation circulated to the public," the report stated.

"The Board is grateful to the Intelligence Community and the Department of Justice for its employees’ tireless efforts to educate Board Members and staff about the program’s operation, and to work with us to declassify information in the public interest."

Not surprisingly, the report was met with a less than warm response by digital rights advocates. Shortly after publication of the PCLOB report, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) criticized the PCLOB dossier as fundamentally flawed in its approach.

"The board skips over the essential privacy problem with the 702 'upstream' program: that the government has access to or is acquiring nearly all communications that travel over the Internet. The board focuses only on the government’s methods for searching and filtering out unwanted information," said EFF legal director Cindy Cohn.

"This ignores the fact that the government is collecting and searching through the content of millions of emails, social networking posts, and other Internet communications, steps that occur before the PCLOB analysis starts."

Perhaps just as unsurprisingly, government agencies applauded the report.

"The board notes that it was 'impressed with the rigor of the government’s efforts to ensure that it acquires only those communications it is authorized to collect, and that it targets only those persons it is authorized to target," wrote Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

"We take very seriously the board’s concerns regarding privacy and civil liberties, and we will review the board’s recommendations with care." ®

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