Official: NSA's work is like ‘stop and frisk’

Employees at the National Security Agency follow the same standards as controversial "stop and frisk" policies when accessing phone surveillance data, intelligence officials said Tuesday.

Though the agency collects data about all U.S. phone calls, NSA employees need to demonstrate “reasonable and articulable suspicion” when they want to access that phone call data.

"It’s effectively the same standard as stop and frisk,” NSA General Counsel Rajesh De said during a hearing held by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which supervises antiterrorism surveillance programs.

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Board member James Dempsey called stop and frisk policies, “at the very least, highly controversial.” 

“A lot of people feel [it] has ended up being implemented in a discriminatory way,” he said.

New York City’s highly visible stop and frisk program is often criticized for disproportionately targeting blacks and Hispanics, though law enforcement officials say the policy is critical in preventing crime.

The intelligence officials defended their version of the process, saying that searches of the phone call database are subject to more oversight than police officers who stop and frisk people on the street.

To access the phone call information, there is a “far, far more regulated and rigorous process than is feasible in the physical search content,” De said.

The standard is high enough that a search “can’t be made on a hunch or for no particular reason at all,” he said.

Only 22 NSA employees are authorized to sign off on those searches, and the NSA has to note the reasoning behind each search, he said. Additionally, the Department of Justice and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court review those search records.

“The actual degree of intrusion” when the NSA searches the phone call database “is considerably less” than a stop and frisk search, said Robert Litt, general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.