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US accelerates funding into NSA access to non-government records

STOCKBy Simon Davies

The Associated Press (AP) has reported that the Obama Administration is funding at least five research groups to discover ways for its security agencies to covertly access and search huge volumes of electronic records held outside the government.

In more simple terms, this means covert bulk crawling of private data storage.

News of the data mining program comes only days after President Obama signalled that the government is considering abandoning the retention of US phone records. However, the President was blatantly unclear about whether this meant abandoning the entire program or merely shifting it away from the NSA toward third party organisations such as phone companies.

The President was equally unclear about whether the government had any intention whatever of limiting the NSA’s access to emails and online activity. The new research could indicate that such limitations are not being contemplated at any serious level.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has funded the research teams 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 could allow the government to store Americans’ communications records with phone companies or third-party organizations, but still search them as needed. In more simple terms, this means covert bulk crawling of private data storage.

The news has not surprised privacy specialists, who during the recent Computers, Privacy & Data Protection conference in Brussels had expressed concern that the NSA would merely create a European-style data retention model in which companies would be required by law to store data for use by the agencies.

US data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases.

The AP story says US data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases.

The administration has provided only vague indications about possible changes to the NSA’s current regime of 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 this month ordered the attorney general and senior intelligence officials to recommend changes by March 28 that would allow the U.S. to identify suspected terrorists’ phone calls without the government itself holding the phone records.

One federal review panel urged 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 Obama to abandon the program entirely.

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 coding could shield both the extracted metadata and identities of those conducting the searches. The government could use encrypted searches to ensure that its analysts were not leaking information or abusing anyone’s privacy during their data searches. And the technique could also be used by the NSA to securely search out and retrieve Internet metadata, such as emails and other electronic records.

It’s heart-warming to learn that the US administration does, after all, care about privacy – even if its concept of privacy is not one that the rest of us might recognise.