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NSA's Internet spying program totally legal, Obama review board finds

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The independent group ordered to evaluate the National Security Agency for President Obama has found that the agency's controversial PRISM program, as well as its ability to collect raw Internet data, are both legal.

Authored by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), this report differs from the board's earlier one on the NSA's program of tracking Americans' phone records in bulk, a program the White House later promised to end after the PCLOB found it both illegal and ineffective.

Released Wednesday, the report looks at the NSA's use of Section 702 of the FISA Amendment Act, a law created to make it easier for American intelligence agencies to gather information on non-Americans. Specifically, it zeroes in on how the NSA uses that law to justify its PRISM program, made public in an early leak by former systems analyst Edward Snowden, which allows the agency to quickly get users' content stored by American companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

According to the report, "the information the [PRISM] program collects has been valuable and effective in protecting the nation’s security and producing useful foreign intelligence.”

There's previously been little doubt that the NSA has broad legal authority to look at non-Americans' content. Obama said in December that the agency is "not constrained by laws" when "outside our borders." Another of Snowden's leaked documents, a court order revealed Monday, shows that the agency has authorization to spy on all but four foreign countries.

While PCLOB uncovered "no trace" of illegal activity on the NSA's part, it did recommend changes to the way the agency targets communications collected under PRISM to better ensure that Americans are not unnecessarily exposed to government scrutiny. The panel also suggested changes to better keep the NSA from obtaining "back door" access to Internet communications.

Of course, just because one board found the NSA's practices legal under American laws, further refined by the secretive FISA Courts, doesn't mean that privacy groups are placated.

One such group, the internationally minded Access, said American agencies have other obligations besides its own laws. "By ignoring the rights of millions of users around the world, the PCLOB has disregarded both U.S. treaty obligations and international human rights standards," Policy Director Jochai Ben-Avie wrote.

Other privacy groups, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), railed against the vast technical abilities the NSA possesses. Legal director Cindy Cohn accused the PCLOB of "[skipping] over the essential privacy problem with the 702 'upstream' program: that the government has access to or is acquiring nearly all communications that travel over the Internet."

While the PCLOB was appointed by Obama and confirmed by the Senate, it has no authority to make changes to NSA programs.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversees U.S. intelligence agencies, said on a statement released to his office's Tumblr that he welcomed the report, and that his office "will review the board’s recommendations with care."

Photo via Sabrinambowen.blogspot.com (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed