WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government is open to some changes to how it conducts its phone and Internet surveillance programs as long as they do not undermine the programs’ effectiveness, U.S. officials told a privacy oversight board on Monday.
How exactly the U.S. phone and online data-gathering programs could strike such a balance - helping thwart terrorist plots while also protecting Americans’ privacy - is under review by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
Established at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission in 2004, the five-member board is an independent watchdog within the government’s executive branch. It is studying U.S. intelligence surveillance programs in light of recent disclosures that have raised concerns about lax privacy protections.
No timeline has been set for the board’s work, but ultimately it will issue a report to President Barack Obama and Congress on the legal standards now used for online and phone spying by U.S. intelligence agencies and what reforms may best ensure Americans’ privacy is protected.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about some potential reforms that the government was amenable to,” the board’s Chairman David Medine said on Monday after a public hearing with officials from the National Security Agency, FBI, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Justice Department.
Medine said he saw some openness from government officials about updating some privacy protections for foreigners and changing how long the government keeps the records it collects.
U.S. classified phone and Internet surveillance programs are under growing scrutiny due to leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Lawmakers are debating several proposed changes to the legal standards governing how much data the NSA gathers, how long it is kept and how it gets accessed.
Privacy advocates worry that the programs aimed at tracking down foreign terrorists also scoop up private data about Americans, and U.S. allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have complained about surveillance of their communications.
“We are open to consideration of a variety of possible reforms to the program so long as they don’t eliminate its utility,” said DNI General Counsel Robert Litt.
That caveat, of course, poses a complex challenge for any proposed reform as national security leaders say NSA’s data gathering is a vital tool for protecting the nation.
Litt said Snowden’s disclosures about NSA programs have made the programs “at least potentially less useful” and putting new heavy restrictions on collection of records could threaten the success of intelligence gathering.
Without easy access to telephone records and the ability to quickly see patterns, for instance, “We’d be less agile, we’d be less informed, we’d be less focused,” FBI Acting General Counsel Patrick Kelley told the board. “We think that as a result, we’d be a lot less effective at preventing the attacks that the American people would want us to prevent.”
Officials reiterated reassurances that the collection of so-called metadata about who called whom means there is no analysis of actual content and that the level of multi-agency oversight that involves a court is “extraordinary” compared to other countries.
But Medine noted that the officials showed some openness to several changes, such as changing the length of time that the government keeps metadata to three years from five.
Another was changing from three to two the maximum number of so-called “hops” from one person’s telephone record to another’s in order to track down a potential target. Third was extending more privacy protections to foreign citizens.
However, the officials pushed back against a proposal to require warrants for accessing the collected database of records, calling it a “novel approach” to restricting access to lawfully obtained data.
Litt also said the U.S. government has expressed openness to changing the operation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees NSA eavesdropping procedures to allow some type of involvement of a third party, or amicus, but said practical and legal concerns remained.
Administration officials repeated their opposition to disclosures of how many reports of a particular kind the government issues to specific companies, saying they would help foreign adversaries to adapt their methods and avoid being caught.
“I think you’re seeing an effort by the executive branch to be as transparent as possible under the circumstances,” said NSA General Counsel Rajesh De.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh