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What Should Senator Wyden Ask About Section 702 Now?

| June 16, 2017

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"Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified last week that he would be unable to provide an estimate of the number of U.S. persons whose information has been incidentally collected under Section 702, despite promising during his confirmation hearing to make every effort to obtain this information. Unsurprisingly, this announcement was met with criticism from legislators and privacy advocates who have long requested this metric—particularly from Senator Wyden, who has been asking for this information since 2011. 

In light of Director Coats’s argument that quantifying the collection of U.S. person communications under Section 702 would exhaust agency resources and threaten privacy rights, here are four questions that Senator Wyden should ask now to establish why an estimate has not been provided and what could be done to encourage such an estimate in the future.

1.  How much would it cost to quantify U.S. person communications collected under Section 702?

Director Coats testified that it would be infeasible to quantify the collection of U.S. person communications under Section 702 because even if only a small sample were analyzed, the amount of resources that would be required to conduct this analysis would detract from the NSA’s core intelligence and counterterrorism mission. However, the amount of resources required might be perfectly acceptable to lawmakers who have been requesting this number for years and must soon decide whether to reauthorize Section 702.  By asking Director Coats to estimate how much it would cost to quantify collection of U.S. person communications under Section 702, Senator Wyden and his colleagues would be in a better position to counter the argument that this analysis would be too expensive—or understand how much funding should be allocated to producing this estimate in the future. 

2. Are there steps that could be taken to protect the privacy of persons whose communications would need to be analyzed in order to quantify U.S. person communications collected under Section 702?

Director Coats also testified that quantifying the collection of U.S. person communications under Section 702 would threaten privacy and civil liberties, as determining whether a particular communication was sent to or from a US person may require NSA analysts to identify the parties to the communication.  Privacy advocacy groups have argued that, given the importance of understanding the scope of U.S. person communications collected under Section 702 surveillance programs, the potential privacy harms may be justified if appropriate safeguards are applied. In a 2015 letter to then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a coalition of groups including the ACLU wrote:

For instance, the review should be conducted by an independent office; it should use a sample that is about to reach the “age-off” date (i.e., is reaching the end of the applicable retention limit) and is representative of current collection practices; and the communications should be destroyed immediately after review.

Senator Wyden and his colleagues should ask whether Director Coats considered applying any of these safeguards and, if so, why they were deemed sufficient to protect the privacy interests at stake..."

For more information on this publication: Please contact Cyber Security Project
For Academic Citation: Boustead, Anne.“What Should Senator Wyden Ask About Section 702 Now?.” Lawfare, June 16, 2017.

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