independent

Friday 18 April 2014

US bid to stop spying on its spying

President Barack Obama's government is looking at ways to stop people from seeing whom the US is spying on (AP)

The US government is looking at ways to prevent people from spying on its own surveillance of Americans' phone records.

As the Obama administration considers shifting the collection of those records from the National Security Agency to requiring that they be stored at phone companies or elsewhere, it is quietly funding research to prevent phone company workers or eavesdroppers from seeing whom the US is spying on.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has paid at least five research teams across America to develop a system for high-volume, encrypted searches of electronic records kept outside the government's possession. The project is among several ideas that would allow the government to discontinue storing Americans' phone records, but still search them as needed.

Under the research, US data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press and the news agency's interviews with researchers, corporate executives and government officials.

Under pressure, the administration has provided only vague descriptions about changes it is considering to the NSA's daily collection and storage of Americans' phone records, which are presently kept in NSA databanks.

To resolve legal, privacy and civil liberties concerns, President Barack Obama ordered the attorney general and senior intelligence officials to recommend changes by March 28 that would allow the US to identify suspected terrorists' phone calls without the government holding the phone records itself.

One federal review panel urged Mr Obama to order phone companies or an unspecified third party to store the records; another panel said collecting the phone records was illegal and ineffective and urged the president to abandon the programme entirely.

Internal documents describing the Security and Privacy Assurance Research project do not cite the NSA or its phone surveillance programme. But if the project were to prove successful, its encrypted search technology could pave the way for the government to shift storage of the records from NSA computers to either phone companies or a third-party organisation.

DNI spokesman Michael Birmingham confirmed that the research was relevant to the NSA's phone records programme and cited "interest throughout the intelligence community", but cautioned that it may be some time before the technology is used.

The intelligence director's office is by law exempt from disclosing detailed budget figures, so it is unclear how much money the government has spent on the SPAR project, which is overseen by the DNI's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity office.

Mr Birmingham said the research was aimed for use in a "situation where a large sensitive data set is held by one party which another seeks to query, preserving privacy and enforcing access policies".

A Columbia University computer sciences expert who heads one of the DNI-funded teams, Steven Bellovin, estimates the government could start conducting encrypted searches within the next year or two.

"If the NSA wanted to deploy something like this it would take one to two years to get the hardware and software in place to start collecting data this way either from phone companies or whatever other entity they decide on," he said.

The NSA's surveillance programme collects millions of Americans' daily calling records into a central agency database. When the agency wants to review telephone traffic associated with a suspected terrorist - the agency made 300 such queries in 2012 - it then searches that data bank and retrieves matching calling records and stores them separately for further analysis.

Using a "three-hop" method that allows the NSA to pull in records from three widening tiers of phone contacts, the agency could collect the phone records of up to 2.5 million Americans during each single query. Mr Obama this month imposed a limit of "two hops" or scrutinising phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organisation, instead of the current three.

An encrypted search system would permit the NSA to shift storage of phone records to either phone providers or a third party, and conduct secure searches remotely through their databases.

The encrypted search techniques could make it more difficult for hackers to access the phone records and could prevent phone companies from knowing which records the government was searching. But intelligence officials worry that phone records stored outside the government could take longer to search and could be vulnerable to hackers or other security threats.

Meanwhile the Justice Department and leading internet companies have agreed to a compromise with the government that would allow the firms to reveal how often they are ordered to turn over information about their customers in national security investigations.

The deal with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and LinkedIn would provide public information in general terms. Other technology companies were also expected to take part.

And published reports have said new documents leaked by former NSA contactor Edward Snowden suggest that popular mapping, gaming and social networking apps on smartphones can feed the NSA and Britain's GCHQ eavesdropping agency with personal data, including location information and details such as political affiliation or sexual orientation.

The reports, published by The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica, said the intelligence agencies get routine access to data generated by apps such as the Angry Birds game franchise or the Google Maps navigation service.

Press Association

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