Opposition mounts to NSA’s data-sharing plans

Opposition mounts to NSA’s data-sharing plans
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Civil liberties and government transparency groups are rallying to oppose a new plan that would allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to share more of the information that it collects about people’s communications and activity on the Internet with other federal agencies.

On Thursday, 33 advocacy groups signed on to a letter insisting the changes “could allow agencies like the FBI to circumvent constitutional protections and will pose new threats to the privacy and civil liberties of ordinary Americans.

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“Moreover, the reported changes would fatally weaken existing restrictions on access to the phone calls, emails, and other data the NSA collects,” they added.

The changes, which top intelligence community lawyer Robert Litt attempted to outline last month, will give more agencies access to the reams of data the NSA picks up as part of its work.

Litt said in a March 31 blog post the move was to prevent information from being “stovepiped” within a single agency, but that NSA data would only be used for intelligence operations — not routine law enforcement.

Critics remain unconvinced.

Days before Litt’s blog post, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers warned that the proposal was a “radical policy shift” that could be “unconstitutional and dangerous.”

In their Thursday letter, advocacy groups worried the scope of NSA surveillance allowed under the law made it inevitable that the agency was collecting information about Americans without a warrant.

Handing that information to other agencies such as the FBI, they warned, “would allow them to circumvent the strict, constitutionally mandated rules of evidence gathering that govern ordinary criminal investigations.”

This week, The Washington Post outlined how one investigation started as an intelligence case relying on secret evidence that a suspect was unable to challenge but quickly transformed into an unrelated criminal case. Critics of the government’s new move highlighted the report as an example of the dangers of giving foreign intelligence data to domestic law enforcement agencies.

In their Thursday letter, advocacy groups warned the new policy threatened to undermine progress that privacy advocates have made in recent years, since disclosures by Edward Snowden caused alarm at the scope of the NSA’s powers.

“The secret shift in policy is particularly troubling at a time when Congress and government oversight bodies are calling for the NSA to move in the other direction,” the groups wrote.

Organizations signing on to Thursday’s letter include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice and the OpenTheGovernment.org.