Archive for the ‘NSA leak’ Category


Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the United States Customs and Border Protection to compel the agency to produce documents relating to a relatively new comprehensive intelligence database of people and cargo crossing the U.S. border.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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Must read FOI stories – 7/07/14

Every week I’ll be doing a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me (Missed last week because of 4th of July, so you’re getting a double dose this week.)

  • No moving targets in FOIA denials: Missouri judge rules that government agencies cannot give a different exemption than the original one used to deny the FOIA request after being sued.
  • Judicial Watch, a government accountability group, filed a legal motion about the “lost emails” of ex-IRS official Lois Learner.
  • FOIA suffers setback in South Carolina at the hands of the legislature and Supreme Court, which recently ruled that public bodies don’t have to issue agendas for regularly scheduled meetings.
  •  Massachusetts SWAT team claims they’re immune from public records requests, ACLU sues.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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FOI Daily Dose: ‘Transparent’ federal agency collects, analyzes, shares U.S. financial transactions without warrant

Judicial Watch found a federal agency created on principles of transparency is spending millions of dollars to collect and analyze U.S. financial transactions without a warrant. In a news release June 27, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton calls the financial surveillance “every bit as serious as the controversy over the NSA’s activities.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was founded in July 2011 to help Americans use financial products and services by ensuring “that prices are clear up front, that risks are visible, and that nothing is buried in fine print,” their website said.

But when CFPB Director Richard Cordray testified about the agency’s data collection and use on April 23 in a semiannual report to Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce accused it of breaking the law by demanding account-level data without a warrant or a National Security Letter, according to JD Supra Law News.

Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CFPB on April 24, asking for records about their personal financial data collection program.

The documents explain CFPB’s initiative to collect credit information about a nationally representative panel of five million consumers, joint borrowers, co-signers and authorized users “for use in a wide range of policy research projects.” CFPB contractors may also share credit card data with “additional government entities.

A news release said the documents reveal:

  • Overlapping contracts with multiple credit reporting agencies and accounting firms to gather, store, and share credit card data
  • An “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity” contract with Experian worth up to $8,426,650 to track daily consumer habits of select individuals without their awareness or consent
  • $4,951,333 for software and instruction paid to Deloitte Consulting LLP
  • A provision stipulating that “The contractor recognizes that, in performing this requirement, the Contractor may obtain access to non-public, confidential information, Personally Identifiable Information (PII), or proprietary information.”

In April, Cordray made the case that the CFPB needs “big data” to keep up with other financial institutions and protect consumers in the financial marketplace, JD Supra Law News reported.

He said the data are “anonymized” and not connected to individuals, much of the data is already accessible to firms through commercial resources, other regulators have used the same sources in the past and the data are essential to CFPB’s congressionally mandated work.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: NSA denies reporter’s FOIA request, open-data company to expand government data trove

NSA denies ProPublica reporter’s FOIA request for his own records

Jeff Larson of ProPublica filed a freedom of information request with the National Security Agency (NSA) asking for any personal data the agency collected about him, and his request was denied, according to ProPublica.

Larson filed the request on June 13, shortly after the first of the NSA’s mass surveillance systems was unveiled on June 6. He received a letter from the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Pamela Phillips on June 24 neither confirming nor denying that the agency had his metadata and warning him any response could “allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.”

In the letter (see here), Phillips cites section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA’s surveillance in the interest of national security and tells Larson granting his request would compromise classified information (the existence or non-existence of such metadata).

Ultimately, Larson concluded he would have to file a lawsuit if he actually wanted to see his records. While he was in touch with the NSA, he learned that their FOIA office has received more than 1,000 information requests since June 7 and hasn’t approved any Privacy Act requests for metadata, according to ProPublica.

“We do not search operational records on specific individuals,” Phillips told Larson.

Open-data company raises money to expand government data trove

An open-data cloud software company that plans to put the NSA’s data online and analyze it raised $18 million to share more government information with the general public, according to TechCrunch.

The Seattle-based Socrata consumerizes “untapped” government data by putting it into accessible and usable forms for citizens, developers and government employees. The funding came from OpenView Venture Partners, Morgenthaler Ventures and Frazier Technology Partners, and as part of the deal,  Scott Maxwell of OpenView will join Socrata’s board.

Along with hiring more staff, the company said it will use its new funds to expand its cloud infrastructure and develop portals and apps it calls “the next wave of open data and government performance innovations.” One of Socrata’s most recent apps called GovStat allows government agencies to set goals and measure their impact against data. GeekWire said many cities are already using Socrata for everything from compiling restaurant inspection data to election results and voter information.

TechCrunch asked Socrata about its plans for the NSA’s data, and Socrata said it has a platform “designed to help put the government online to see what it is doing with the data and what can be built from it.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Privacy exemption limits most FOIA requests

Privacy is the most frequently cited exemption for denying Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a study by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication.

The study compiled 15 years of annual FOIA  report data for 13 cabinet-level departments, excluding Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services because they mostly receive individual requests for personal records.

Of the nine exemptions that limit the free flow of information act, agencies used privacy exemptions more than 232,000 times last year, or 53 percent of the time, to deny requests.

The exemption has not been applied so broadly since the fiscal year of 2002 in the wake of Sept. 11.

The exemption is meant to protect personnel and medical flies, information that would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and law enforcement information that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” according to the study.

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FOI Daily Dose: Poll shows Americans support NSA surveillance but still want answers

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that although 58 percent of Americans support the National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence-gathering program, an even larger majority is still eager for answers.

According to the poll conducted June 12-16 on a national random sample of 1,017 adults, 65 percent want Congress to hold public hearings on the NSA surveillance programs.

The Washington Post analyzed the results June 19, comparing the findings to previous public opinion polls about the NSA surveillance since the programs were unveiled June 6. A CNN/ORC poll on June 17 showed that 66 percent of Americans supported the federal government tracking foreign Internet activity, and yet a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll published the same day found only 48 percent approved of the phone and Internet data collection.

To help clear up confusion about the surveillance, NSA Director Keith Alexander told a House committee on June 18 that the programs helped foil more than 50 terror threats worldwide, including more than 10 in the U.S. Homeland, according to USA Today.

Alexander told lawmakers: “I would much rather be here today debating this than explaining why we were unable to prevent another 9/11” attack.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Update: China praises ‘handsome’ hero, condemns U.S. ‘double-standard’

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden might be getting flack from Washington about his NSA surveillance exposure, but in China he’s a “handsome” hero, ABC News reports.

Many Chinese have taken to China’s version of Twitter, called Weibo, posting the leaker’s old modeling photos (turns out Snowden had a brief modeling stint). On a Weibo survey, 78 percent of respondents see Snowden as “freedom fighter who is protecting civil liberties,” ABC reports.

Snowden first told the Guardian he chose Hong Kong for his hideout because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”

And the results of the Weibo survey make it look like he’s safe, considering only three percent of respondents support turning him over to the U.S. government, ABC News said.

But even though it looks like China has taken a liking to Snowden, the nation has little patience with the U.S. as a whole since U.S. efforts to hack Chinese correspondence creates a “double standard” after the U.S. complained about Chinese hacking in May.

According to the Guardian, China said U.S. surveillance is testing Sino-U.S. ties and straining an already “soured relationship” on cybersecurity.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Fox News reporter uses NY shield law to fend off subpoena; Dems and GOP criticize Snowden, NSA director speaks about leaks

New York shield law may fend off subpoena

A Fox News reporter is seeking protection from being forced to reveal her sources in Colorado court under New York’s shield law, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Fox News reporter Jana Winter was subpoenaed in January for a July 25 story she wrote about the Colorado movie theater massacre last summer involving two anonymous law enforcement sources.

A five-judge panel heard the case on June 12 when Winter’s attorney argued that she should not be forced to reveal her sources because even though she was reporting in Colorado, she lives and works in New York, and is therefore protected under New York’s shield law, which provides “absolute privilege for journalists’ confidential sources and reporting materials,” RCFP said.

The attorneys for the accused shooter James Holmes subpoenaed Winter, saying the law enforcement sources violated Holmes’ right to a fair trial by telling Winter about his notebook allegedly filled with drawings of the planned shooting.

With the help of a Colorado judge in January, the attorneys got Justice Larry Stephan of Manhattan to sign-off on a subpoena, and Winter’s attorney, Dori-Ann Hanswirth, filed papers to appeal Stephan’s decision to sign, according to Fox News.

Since Stephan signed, Winter had to attend a Colorado hearing in April to determine whether Holmes’s notebook qualifies as evidence in the case. Winter is scheduled to reappear before the court in August, and if the notebook is ruled a “substantial issue,” she will be ordered to reveal her sources lest she face time in jail for contempt of court, according to RCFP.

But the New York court’s decision from Wednesday’s hearing may save her if they rule that Stephan should not have signed-off on the subpoena in the first place. Hanswirth told RCFP she is hopeful the New York court will decide before August.

Snowden under fire from both sides of party lines, NSA director speaks out

National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden received criticism from Republicans and Democrats on June 13 after closed briefings with top administration officials, according to Yahoo News.

Two senior Republican lawmakers raised vague, yet alarming concerns that terrorists are already changing their tactics now that the NSA surveillance programs are unveiled.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich) said there are “changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm, and our allies harm,” and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) of the Senate Intelligence Committee said those “changes” might even cost American lives, according to Yahoo.

“His disclosures are ultimately going to lead to us being less safe in America because bad guys will be able to figure out a way around some of the methods we use, and it’s likely to cost lives down the road,” Chambliss said.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Maryland), the committee’s ranking Democrat, expressed concerns and questions about Snowden’s choice of a Hong Kong hideout since it’s part of China, “a country that’s cyberattacking us every single day.”
NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander also spoke out for the first time, sharing concerns about terrorists changing their plans in response to the leaks and saying he hopes to bolster support for the programs by declassifying “dozens of attacks” they have helped disrupt, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Alexander defended NSA’s intelligence programs as legal and necessary. But he did admit concern that junior employees like Snowden can access so many national security secrets and said that issue needs to be addressed.

“This individual was a system administrator with access to key parts of the network,” he said. “This is something we have to fix.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI FYI: Is NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden a hero or villain?

While U.S. officials hunted for who leaked about the National Security Agency’s sweeping domestic surveillance late last week, the whistle-blower outed himself.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant and a current employee for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, requestedthe Guardian reveal his identity in an article and video interview published June 8.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden told the Guardian.

After working at the National Security Agency for the last four years, Snowden said he decided to leak top secret information about the government’s surveillance because his conscience got the best of him. He didn’t feel right about racking up a big pay check in his Hawaii office all the while fighting off his gut feeling that NSA workers like him could easily grant themselves the right to snoop on average Americans without “public oversight.”

“The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,” Snowden told the Guardian.

In the interview he also said the NSA “routinely lies in response to congressional inquiries about the scope of surveillance in America,” and he hopes that his outing will not detract attention from the top secret documents and information he publicized.

“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” he told the Guardian. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

Snowden made the decision to out the NSA in what the Guardian is calling the “biggest intelligence leak” in the organization’s history about three weeks ago when he copied top secret documents in his office and boarded a plane to Hong Kong on May 20. He has been hiding out and conducting secret interviews with the press ever since. He told his supervisors he needed to leave work for “a couple of weeks” for epilepsy treatments (a condition he actually has), the Guardian said.

Snowden told the Guardian that he chose Hong Kong because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,” and he thinks it’s one place he can hide from the repercussions of blowing the whistle on ultra-powerful American intelligence agencies.

Before Snowden revealed himself, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald who has been breaking information about the NSA’s surveillance since June 5 (see our previous blog post) appeared on ABC News “This Week” Sunday to warn Americans there might be more than one NSA whistle-bower and to commend whistle-blowers everywhere for not allowing government prosecution to dissuade them from speaking out.

“(S)ince the government hides virtually everything that they do at the threat of criminal prosecution, the only way for us to learn about them is through these courageous whistle-blowers – who deserve our praise and gratitude, and not imprisonment and prosecution,” Greenwald told ABC News.

But also on “This Week” Sunday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)  and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told ABC News that the NSA’s massive surveillance program is not only “within the law,”  but also it has already helped thwart terror plots, including Colorado resident Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plan to bomb New York City’s subways.

“I can tell you, in the Zazi case in New York, it’s exactly the program that was used,” Rogers told ABC News.

On June 7, President Obama addressed the press at an appearance in California primarily about health care. He explained that although he welcomes debate about citizen’s privacy concerns, he does not welcome the leak to the press because he said the NSA’s top secret programs are secret for a reason. They help the government identify and stop potential terrorists without alerting terrorists about how the system works.

“Our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm, and if every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That’s why these things are classified,” Obama said on June 7.

He noted that NSA employees can be trusted to “operate like professionals” and their surveillance methods are “very narrowly circumscribed.”

One senior law enforcement source told ABC News last week that the leaker’s decision to spill top secret information about the NSA was “completely reckless and illegal.”

“It’s more than just unauthorized. He’s no hero,” the source told ABC News.

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