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Privacy Perspectives | Why the New NSA Section 702 Report Is Remarkable Related reading: Notes from the IAPP Publications Editor, March 16, 2018


On April 21, something remarkable happened with privacy, something that received very little fanfare.

The newly created National Security Agency (NSA) Civil Liberties and Privacy Office released its first public report. The report provides an overview of the NSA’s implementation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Section 702. It has also been submitted to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in response to their request for information as part of its review of NSA programs.

Why is this remarkable? Two reasons:

One, it is a remarkable level of transparency for how the NSA—an agency whose core culture is to maintain the strictest secrecy—implements its authority and provides explanations of privacy and civil liberties.

Two, the report itself publicly commits the NSA, a significant member of the intelligence community, to applying the Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs) as a baseline for privacy protections.

This second point is remarkable given the history of the FIPPs. They were first articulated in 1973 in the Health and Education and Welfare’s advisory committee’s report. The committee was established in response to growing use of automated data systems containing information about individuals in the context of administering large social programs affecting the American public. At inception, the FIPPs were focused on a particular context—that of a benefits-related agency meant to interact directly with American citizens and lawful residents.

Since then, the context for applying the FIPPs has gradually expanded. Notably in 2008, the FIPPs were adopted as the foundational principles for privacy policy in the context of public safety and security at the Department of Homeland Security.  The April 21 report carries application of the FIPPs into the intelligence community.

That is a remarkable expansion from its original context.

The report will have its critics from both right and left. But imagine if you had said a year ago to a room full of privacy advocates that the NSA would have a Civil Liberties and Privacy Office and that it would issue a public report applying the FIPPs to the NSA. You might have been laughed out of the room.

The NSA’s report publicly commits to a framework for future accountability and oversight of privacy and civil liberties protections. This is a long journey but it is at least a first step—and a big one at that.


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  • comment Malcolm Crompton, CIPP; MD IIS Pty Ltd • Apr 25, 2014
    John - very good points.  Along with the other 6.7 billion people on this planet who are non US citizens, non US residents, I still feel vulnerable. We are offered no substantive protection and no genuinely independent verification.  A good start by NSA; more to do.
  • comment Name David Bender • Apr 27, 2014
    John:  Good summary.  Now let's see how long it takes non-US intelligence services to introduce some transparency.
  • comment William Grant • Apr 28, 2014
    How transparent can a government agency be forced to be when the leading government agency(ies) constantly refuse transparency or outright lie about their activities and motivations to "we the people?"
  • comment John Kropf • May 8, 2014
    I understand the skepticism of all the comments above.  That said, this is a first step providing accountability.  The most effective thing the privacy community can do is recognize and publicize this public commitment by the NSA as a first step and later hold the government accountable to live up to its commitment.  Recognition of this policy commitment will also serve to support further work by the NSA's Chief Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer.