U.S. surveillance disclosure mostly useless to business

Surveillance report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is too vague to have much meaning

U.S. disclosure government
Credit: CSO staff

Businesses will find very little value in the government's first annual report on surveillance activities, experts say.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) disclosed last Friday that the government collected in 2013 information on more than 89,000 "targets" and issued more than 19,000 National Security Letters (NSLs).

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An NSL, issued by the FBI, represents the most secretive type of investigation, since the letters demand customer information from companies while also activating a gag order that prohibits the recipients from disclosing what they did in responding to the NSL.

The lack of context in the government disclosure makes the numbers useless in determining the extent of government surveillance involving Americans or U.S. businesses.

The ODNI acknowledges that the term "targets," as defined by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), is broad and could mean a particular person, a group or organization.

"Public reporting, generally, is a valuable oversight mechanism, but these particular reports really do not offer much useful information," Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said Monday.

Mark Rumold, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, the report was simply "more information."

"If anyone was laboring under the impression that the government's 702 surveillance was narrowly cabined or limited to a few thousand people, then this disclosure puts that question to rest."

The number of targets at 89,138 is the "floor" for the number of actual individuals affected, Rumold said. "The ceiling could be 10 times higher, it could be 100 times higher. There's is no telling."

The ODNI released the numbers in complying with a directive from President Barack Obama. The order instructed the ODNI to declassify and release as much information as possible on the government's data collection.

The directive followed revelations of the U.S. National Security Agency gathering massive amounts of information on Internet activity, such as email and text messaging, as well as mobile phone communications. NSA activity was exposed through documents released to the media by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

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The disclosures have had a major impact on tech companies selling products in foreign markets. Cisco has publicly stated that sales have suffered, because of the reports on NSA spying.

In addition, eight of the largest U.S. Internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, have formally urged the White House and Congress to rein in NSA activity.

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