NSA data

The National Security Agency has been under significant scrutiny recently from lawmakers and citizens concerned about its widespread data-gathering operations, conducted with legislative and executive blessings in the name of national security. That is a somewhat tenuous rationale in many minds, and ensuring that the information is indeed used for protecting the United States and its citizens from legitimate threats is critical to justifying the compromised privacy endemic to the NSA’s practice. Put more simply, the NSA must take great care in how it shares the information it gathers.

Other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon and the Drug Enforcement Agency, would like access to that data, according to a Sunday story in The New York Times, and are none too impressed with the NSA’s stranglehold. The tension illustrates the fundamental problem with such widespread data-gathering, regardless of the reason.

Defining just what constitutes national security is at the crux of the matter, and the other federal agencies seeking access to NSA information argue that theirs are national security concerns. The DEA, for example, contends that some Latin American drug-trafficking activities were helping fund Middle East terrorist groups and sought access to any related data that the NSA might have gathered. The NSA declined, triggering frustration at the DEA. Other times, though, the NSA has provided data based on similar arguments, or has found sufficient concern in another agency’s case as to take over the investigation itself. There appears to be sufficient gray area in how decisions are made about sharing data to raise the question of just how carefully privacy is considered, and just what standard the NSA is using to determine when to share its data. There are moving targets in every direction.

This nebulousness reveals the flaws in the data-gathering policy – or at least the fact that is not articulated entirely clearly. While protecting national security is essential, there must be concrete standards by which that is defined, as well as an accountability structure for those charged with making that determination. Instead, what appears to be emerging is a would-be feeding frenzy by the nation’s intelligence agencies. Keeping that from growing out of control requires discipline and clear expectations. Both seem to be missing from the current structure.

It is not difficult to sympathize with agencies seeking access to information that would help their efforts, but therein lies the danger of the NSA’s data-gathering operation itself. Once it exists, there is understandable temptation to peek at the information harvested from monitoring millions of Americans’ activities. Giving in to such temptation, though, can have alarming implications for privacy and national security alike. The NSA and its cohort agencies in the intelligence business must tread carefully.

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