In Defense of Tapping the Internet to Keep You Safe

People waiting in a crowd and using their phones.

In one month, the authorities provided under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) are due to expire unless reauthorized by Congress. Lawmakers are expected to renew FISA, but may put another expiration deadline on the bill, and also may add limitations on how the government is allowed to use the information it collects, according to the experts that attended The Cipher Brief’s Cyber Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday.

  • Section 702 allows the U.S. government, primarily the National Security Agency, to monitor the communications of non-U.S. persons who are reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States, by accessing data provided by U.S.-based technology companies. Proponents said the authorities have proven integral to the intelligence community’s core missions of combating international terrorism, transnational crime, foreign espionage, weapons proliferation and cyber insecurity.
  • Current and former practitioners contend that even a short lag in the authorities could disrupt ongoing intelligence operations, prompting discussion among policymakers for providing a short fix by extending the provisions as is temporarily, potentially linked to other bills.
  • There are currently three separate bills in the works vying to reauthorize different versions of the controversial authorities: the FISA Amendments Act of 2017 has been introduced in the Senate and the most likely candidate; the USA Liberty Act and USA Rights Act have been introduced into the House of Representatives.
  • Collection under 702 takes place on internet exchange points and server farms within U.S. borders, due to a variety of technical reasons as a result of how data transits the globe on a borderless internet, and the fact that foreigners, including terrorists, often use U.S.-based communications platforms such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, Microsoft and Apple to communicate from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, or even Russia.
  • This is accomplished through two methods: downstream and upstream collection. Downstream collection is the collection of stored communications data, both metadata and content, using “selectors”– such as email addresses, names and phone numbers – tasked to internet communications platforms who report back related communications data. Upstream collection, however, is the tasked collection of data in transit – often at data centers and from fiber optic cable landing sites – from internet service providers using specific selectors designed to capture communications of interest from a deluge of internet traffic in motion.

The intelligence collection enabled by the authorities under FISA 702 has been determined to be one of the most productive sources of intelligence ever afforded to the NSA, former officials on the Cyber Advisory Board said.

“The Cipher Brief has become the most popular outlet for former intelligence officers; no media outlet is even a close second to The Cipher Brief in terms of the number of articles published by formers.” —Sept. 2018, Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 62

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