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The NSA's foreign surveillance: 5 things to know

Grant Gross | March 15, 2017
The main authority for the agency's foreign surveillance programs expires at the end of the year, and some people want to rein it in

House members, in their March 1 hearing, talked little about the impact on people outside the U.S. At this point, it seems unlikely that U.S. lawmakers will limit the provision’s foreign data collection.

 Privacy advocates have an ace up their sleeves, however. Several privacy groups have encouraged the European Union to get involved in the debate and threaten to revoke Privacy Shield, the cross-Atlantic agreement that allows U.S. companies to handle EU residents' data, unless significant changes are made to 702. 

 The European Commission "has made it clear that it takes seriously its obligations to review the Privacy Shield Agreement," said Nathan White, senior legislative manager at Access Now, a digital rights group.

EU nations understand surveillance is can be necessary, but "surveillance must respect human rights," White added. "Surveillance doesn’t trump human rights responsibilities."

 

Recent surveillance controversies

 The U.S. intelligence community’s surveillance programs have stirred up new controversies in recent weeks. In early March, President Donald Trump, in a series of tweets, accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in New York City during the last presidential campaign.

While Trump has provided no evidence of the bombshell charge, it appears that the NSA intercepted some of his campaign staffers' communications when they talked to foreign surveillance targets. That type of surveillance would likely be authorized by Section 702.

A few days later, WikiLeaks published more than 8,700 documents that it says came from the CIA. The documents describe the spy agency's efforts to compromise iPhone, Android devices, smart TVs, automobile software, and major operating systems.

The CIA, however, runs separate surveillance programs from the NSA. CIA surveillance is supposed to be focused on specific foreign targets, as opposed to the widespread surveillance that the NSA does under the authority of Section 702. The CIA says it is "legally prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance targeting individuals here at home, including our fellow Americans."

 

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