Exposing Uncle Sam's Internet Snooping; Judge Finds Freedom of Information Essential to Privacy Protection

Article excerpt


Uncle Sam is looking for ways to sharpen his watchful gaze. In the name of fighting terrorism, federal agencies can have a hard time distinguishing the line between legitimate surveillance and unlawful spying. Fortunately, a court ruling on the public's right to know may brighten that line. Loss of hard-won liberty ought not be the price for keeping Americans safe.

On Jan. 8, Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the Obama administration's request to exempt documents related to the government's Internet surveillance from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) compliance. The judge also chastised administration officials for delays in producing records approved for release. In effect, she said freedom of information means just that.

The case involved a pilot program operated jointly by the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security started in 2011 to monitor electronic traffic passing through certain Internet-service providers in an effort to catch hackers launching computerized attacks against defense contractors' networks. The Pentagon's intelligence branch, the National Security Agency (NSA), partnered with AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink to snoop on the Internet traffic of 15 defense firms that agreed to participate, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, CSC and SAIC. Rather than scrutinize all their traffic, the NSA says it used filters that only looked for certain malicious code that would be a sign of hacker penetration.

Privacy advocates feared that having the feds tap into the public Internet flow could lead to government spying on the electronic communications of private citizens. …