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New Snowden Documents Reveal Obama Administration Secretly Expanded NSA Surveillance of Americans’ Internet Use

(Image: Safwat Sayed)

(Image: Safwat Sayed)

Classified documents leaked by exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal the Obama administration has secretly stepped up the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of Americans’ Internet use in a bid to detect malicious computer hacking.

The New York Times reports the Justice Department issued a pair of memos in 2012 allowing the NSA to engage in warrantless online surveillance on American soil to find data connected to foreign-based attempts to hack into US computers.

According to the memos, the Justice Department only allowed the NSA to monitor addresses with ‘cybersignatures,’ or patterns associated with computer intrusions, that it could link to foreign governments. But the documents also state that the NSA sought the authority to target hackers even when no ties to foreign governments were detected.

The latest Snowden disclosure comes amid a period of increasing—in both number and sophistication—foreign cyberattacks targeting US business interests, financial institutions and government agencies.

But due to greater public knowledge of the global scope and local focus of government surveillance—thanks in large part to Snowden’s leaks, there has been greater scrutiny of the government’s secret legal justifications for increased surveillance.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed legislation limiting some NSA spying activities. But the move covered only some provisions of the USA Patriot Act and not the warrantless wiretapping program.

Many government officials insist NSA surveillance of suspected hackers is a necessary and valuable tool that protects Americans from increasingly aggressive cyberattacks by foreign actors.

“It should come as no surprise that the US government gathers intelligence on foreign powers that attempt to penetrate US networks and steal the private information of US citizens and companies,” Brian Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the New York Times. “Targeting overseas individuals engaging in hostile cyberactivities on behalf of a foreign power is a lawful foreign intelligence purpose,” Hale insisted.

But critics counter there should be more public debate about the trade-offs that affect Americans’ privacy for the sake of increased security.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order aimed at shielding computer networks and data from cyber threats. Among its key provisions:

–Information Hubs: The executive order encourages the creation of “information sharing and analysis organizations” to combat “particular emerging threats or vulnerabilities.”

–Information Sharing: The Department of Homeland Security and the new National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center now have the authority to share information on cyber threats with the information hubs. Corporations will also have easier access to classified government data.

Obama has cited the January hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which he and the FBI blamed on North Korea, and other recent cyber threats, including an attack by Islamic State hackers on a Pentagon Twitter account, as proof of the need for a more robust cybersecurity regime.

To that end, Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco announced in February that the administration is establishing a new cybersecurity agency, the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, which will coordinate analysis of emerging cyber threats.

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