Congress needs to overhaul a pair of privacy laws to allow the government to communicate with private companies and foreign nations, according to National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander.
The spy chief, speaking at Georgetown University on Tuesday, said that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act need to be amended to let companies and agencies share critical information about cyber threats.
“An attack on Wall Street or an exploit against Wall Street, NSA and Cyber Command would probably not see that,” he said, referring to cyber intrusions meant to either take down or steal information from a server.
“The fact is we don’t have an ability to see it and the Internet service providers and others are forbidden from sharing that information with us, with the government – [the Department of Homeland Security], FBI, NSA and Cyber Command - because of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act.”
“We have capabilities to help defend the nation but we don’t have a way of sharing them back and forth, and if we did share them, we have to figure out how to work liability with those companies so that they’re protected from the facts that they have given,” he added.
He added that the information at issue “isn’t our privacy information. This is attack information or exploitation information.”
The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, of which the Stored Communications Act is a part, governs how the government can seize or share people’s electronic records.
The law currently allows law enforcement agencies to obtain emails and other information without a warrant, as long as they have been stored electronically for more than 180 days.
Alexander has been pushing Congress to act on a cybersecurity bill that would make it easy to coordinate between government and the private sector. The Senate stalled on a major overhaul in 2012, and some legislators say that a select committee should be established to usher legislation through Congress.
There is action in Congress to reform the law, but the effort would likely make it harder for the government to get information.
The Email Privacy Act from Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), Tom Graves (R-Ga.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) would require government agencies to get a warrant before searching communications online. The bill has 181 co-sponsors in the House.
Alexander, along with other intelligence officials and Attorney General Eric Holder, has been working on a handful of reforms to the agency’s surveillance programs, after leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden caused an uproar beginning last summer. President Obama has set a deadline to reveal those plans later this month.
Addressing those concerns and clamping down on media leaks would help pave the way for future cybersecurity legislation, Alexander hoped.
“I think we are going to make headway over the next few weeks on media leaks. I am an optimist,” he said.
“I think if we make the right steps with media leaks legislation, then cyber legislation will be a lot easier.”