The Obama administration's order stipulates that communications intercepted by the NSA can be shared before privacy protections are applied.
The Obama administration's order stipulates that communications intercepted by the NSA can be shared before privacy protections are applied.

The National Security Agency (NSA) was granted expanded powers to exchange information gathered in its global surveillance operations. The intelligence organization will now be allowed to share raw data with the federal government's 16 other intelligence agencies, according to a report on Thursday in the New York Times.

The Obama administration's order stipulates that communications intercepted by the NSA can be shared before privacy protections are applied.

Previously, the NSA was restricted in what it could do with the data collected as part of its surveillance activities. 

The alteration means that more government personnel will have access to the intercepted raw data – which includes communications from satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails both in the U.S. and abroad. 

The new rules to share “raw signals intelligence information,” were signed on Jan. 3 by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, after James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, applied his signature on Dec. 15. The New York Times source was a 23-page, largely declassified copy of the procedures.

The intelligence agencies will now be permitted to request specific surveillance feeds from the NSA that they deem vital to their investigations.

Previously, the Times claimed, the NSA filtered information before sharing it with other agencies, such as the CIA., FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Only data deemed pertinent would be shared, albeit redacting personally identifiable information of people considered innocent. But, the new action will give access to the raw data to personnel in the sister agencies, although they are instructed to apply similar rules regarding “minimizing” privacy intrusions, the Times wrote.

“This is not expanding the substantive ability of law enforcement to get access to signals intelligence,” the Times quoted Robert S. Litt, the general counsel to Mr. Clapper. “It is simply widening the aperture for a larger number of analysts, who will be bound by the existing rules.”

But, privacy advocates have a different perspective. “Rather than dramatically expanding government access to so much personal data, we need much stronger rules to protect the privacy of Americans,” said Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, quoted in the Times. “Seventeen different government agencies shouldn't be rooting through Americans' emails with family members, friends and colleagues, all without ever obtaining a warrant.”

When asked whether he believed this new rule will threaten privacy rights, Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group based in San Francisco, told SC Media on Thursday evening that indeed, it would. 

"This change represents a significant and substantive expansion of the number of people and agencies permitted to access raw, unfiltered, warrantless surveillance data," he told SC.

The bulk collection of communications data of Americans is taking place today, purportedly under the authority of Executive Order 12333, Cardozo explained. "That collection violates the Fourth Amendment. These rules don't make the underlying collection any more (or less) unconstitutional."

These rules, especially Section VIII, invite law enforcement to engage in illegal "parallel construction," he pointed out. "Warrantlessly collected data is (in essence) laundered and hidden, not just from criminal defendants, but even from courts."

Further, the timing of the announcement is unfortunate, Cardozo told SC. "We're about to hand over the keys to an extremely powerful surveillance apparatus to new administration with a less-than-robust respect for the Constitution. I've heard defenders say that the fact that these rules have been finalized now, before the transition, is something that civil libertarians should take comfort in. I take no comfort in unenforceable rules that the next administration could simply discard."

Toomey at the ACLU agreed that the rule was a setback for the privacy rights of Americans whose communications are siphoned into the NSA's operations.