NSA warrantless tapping to be reined in?

News by Steve Gold

"This is what should happen when a democracy gets the opportunity to check itself in the mirror and recalibrate" - Tony Kenyon, A10 Networks.

Last month was the first anniversary of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's flight from Hawaii to Hong Kong, where in early June he met with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, releasing a vast cache of secret NSA documents to them. On June 9 last year - four days after the first NSA programme was exposed by the press - he revealed his identity.

And the US government - whilst obviously gunning for Snowden's scalp - now appears to have started reining in the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA), as this week saw the US House of Representatives passing an amendment that bans the use of funds to hold `warrantless searches' on the communications of American citizens.

The move - which has been welcomed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - places limits on the NSA in terms of building backdoors into communications, including emails and social media chat histories.

The amendment will not pass into law until the US Senate passes the proposal, but most industry observers predict that this next step will be a shoe-in, especially given the rising tensions in the Middle East.

According to the EFF - a civil libertarian non-profit organisation that is the broad equivalent of Privacy International on this side of the Atlantic - the amendment to the Defence Appropriations bill is designed to cut funding for NSA backdoors, "passing overwhelmingly with strong bipartisan support: 293 ayes, 123 nays, and 1 present."

Currently, says the EFF, the NSA collects emails, browsing and chat history under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and searches this information without a warrant for the communications of Americans - a practice known as backdoor searches.

The amendment, says the agency, would block the NSA from using any of its funding from this Defence Appropriations Bill to conduct such warrantless searches.

"In addition, the amendment would prohibit the NSA from using its budget to mandate or request that private companies and organisations add backdoors to the encryption standards that are meant to keep you safe on the Web," says the EFF in its analysis.

Mark Rumold, staff attorney for the EFF, said that the move is an important first step in reining in the NSA.

"The House voted overwhelmingly to cut funding for two of the NSA's invasive surveillance practices: the warrantless searching of Americans' international communications, and the practice of requiring companies to install vulnerabilities in communications products or services. We applaud the House for taking this important first step, and we look forward to other elected officials standing up for our right to privacy," he said in a written comment.

"Digital rights organisations, including the EFF, strongly supported the amendment. We and other organisations - including Free Press, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, and Taskforce - helped to organise a grassroots campaign to promote the amendment," he added.

Rumold went on to say that, on Wednesday, the day before the vote, the EFF urged friends and members to call their members of Congress through the Web site ShuttheBackDoor.net.

"Thousands responded to the call to action. We extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone who spoke out on this issue. This is a great day in the fight to rein in NSA surveillance abuses, and we hope Congress will work to ensure this amendment is in the final version of the appropriations bill that is enacted."

The move - and the EFF's comments - come as the NSA has published the latest set of data from `Boundless Informant visualisation tool' that shows the agency has active `computer network exploits' within the US.

According to the Ars Technica newswire, the screenshot shows 289 active computer network exploitations within a 30 day period across the US.

According to Tony Kenyon, EMEA/LatinAm technical director with A10 Networks - who was the only one of several industry professionals brave enough to comment on the NSA having its powers and budget limited - the fact that the amendment passed with such overwhelming support indicates that the bounds of 'reasonableness' were seen to be overstretched.

"This is what should happen when a democracy gets the opportunity to check itself in the mirror and recalibrate. At the end of the day we are talking about 'warrantless' searches - there's a big difference between the need to set-up backdoor access for targeted suspect communications, and hoovering up bulk messaging indiscriminately," he said.

"Even from a Big Data perspective, this simply does not scale, at least not within finite budgets, and especially with the use of handset, mobile tablets and streaming content continuing to grow non-linearly year on year," he added.

The smart way forward, argues Kenyon, has to be through the use of improved intelligence and more advanced heuristic analyses - within the constraints of due process.

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