US looks at ways to prevent spying on NSA spying

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 28, 2014 at 2:31 am •  Published: January 28, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Obama administration considers ending the storage of millions of phone records by the National Security Agency, the government is quietly funding research to prevent eavesdroppers from seeing whom the U.S. is spying on, The Associated Press has learned.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has paid at least five research teams across the country to develop a system for high-volume, encrypted searches of electronic records kept outside the government's possession. The project is among several ideas that could allow the government to store Americans' phone records with phone companies or a third-party organization, but still search them as needed.

Under the research, U.S. data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press and interviews with researchers, corporate executives and government officials.

The administration has provided only vague descriptions about changes it is considering to the NSA's daily collection and storage of Americans' phone records, which are presently kept in NSA databanks. To resolve legal, privacy and civil liberties concerns, President Barack Obama this month ordered the attorney general and senior intelligence officials to recommend changes by March 28 that would allow the U.S. to identify suspected terrorists' phone calls without the government itself holding the phone records.

One federal review panel urged Obama to order phone companies or an unspecified third party to store the records; another panel said collecting the phone records was illegal and ineffective and urged Obama to abandon the program entirely.

Internal documents describing the Security and Privacy Assurance Research project do not cite the NSA or its phone surveillance program. But if the project were to prove successful, its encrypted search technology could enable the NSA to conduct secure searches while shifting storage of phone records from agency data banks to either phone companies or a third-party organization.

A DNI spokesman, Michael Birmingham, confirmed that the research was relevant to the NSA's phone records program. He cited "interest throughout the intelligence community" but cautioned that it may be some time before the technology is used.

The intelligence director's office is by law exempt from disclosing detailed budget figures, so it's unclear how much money the government has spent on the project, which is overseen by the DNI's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity office. Birmingham said the research is aimed for use in a "situation where a large sensitive data set is held by one party which another seeks to query, preserving privacy and enforcing access policies."

A Columbia University computer sciences expert who heads one of the DNI-funded teams, Steven M. Bellovin, estimates the government could start conducting encrypted searches within the next year or two.

"If the NSA wanted to deploy something like this it would take one to two years to get the hardware and software in place to start collecting data this way either from phone companies or whatever other entity they decide on," said Bellovin, who is also a former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission.