NSA seen as threat in computer security role Danger to privacy rights lurks in agency's efforts, some opponents fear

October 27, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

A privacy advocacy group said yesterday that the National Security Agency's expanding role in protecting U.S. computer networks against attack by hackers or terrorists carries the hidden risk of a "subtle erosion" of the civil liberties and privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

In May, President Clinton established a number of new government agencies and boards charged with shoring up the nation's "critical infrastructure" -- the computers that control, for example, air traffic, electricity and banking.

But NSA's role in the process carries a "grave threat" to the privacy of citizens whose personal information is carried on those computer networks, according to a report released yesterday by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a private nonprofit group in Washington.

The report was released at a panel discussion at the National Press Club on the civil liberties implications of the Clinton administration's computer security efforts.

Among the concerns is that NSA will be given wider oversight of private sector computer information and "will become the de facto information security czar," said Wayne Madsen, a former NSA employee who wrote the report. Madsen said NSA's role could also cast a veil of secrecy over future discussions and decisions on the topic.

"It's important to note that the intelligence community, and particularly the NSA, has had its sights set on restricting access to public information for a number of years," he said.

Former NSA general counsel Elizabeth Rindskopf, one of the five panelists but the only one representing government, criticized the report as undocumented and inaccurate.

She said concerns about NSA access to citizens' personal information is "nonsense." The larger threat to computer privacy comes from private companies, such as those that buy and sell personal data for the purposes of direct-mail campaigns and telemarketing.

"We must give up the notion that government is the enemy," said Rindskopf, who also recently served as the CIA's general counsel. "It's not Big Brother, but a bunch of private little brothers that are following and tracking your Social Security number."

But other civil libertarians on the panel said they were concerned that many of the Clinton administration's proposed solutions to protecting U.S. computers against "cyber attacks" call for expanded policing powers.

"We think on a lot of these issues the balance has been tilted toward national security, disfavoring civil liberties," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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