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Obama administration relaxes NSA data-sharing rules

Civil liberties organisations express concern at US move to disseminate raw NSA communications surveillance to 16 other government agencies

Just days before Donald Trump becomes president of the US, the Obama administration has relaxed rules for sharing raw personal data gathered by the National Security Agency (NSA).

The new rules enable the NSA to share personal communications raw data gathered through its surveillance operations with 16 other US intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

The move reduces the risk that the NSA will filter out data important to other agencies, but increases the risk of exposing the private data of innocent people, reports the New York Times.

Agencies including the CIA, FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will now get access to all the NSA’s raw communications surveillance data, including the personal information of innocent people.

Each agency will have to apply rules to minimise privacy intrusions for both US and foreign citizens that were introduced by the Obama administration after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s bulk internet surveillance activities.

Supporters of the move claim it does not expand law enforcement’s ability to get access to the data, but simply allows access by more analysts who will be bound by the existing rules.

However, opponents said the move eroded privacy protection for US citizens and expressed concern that data stored routed or stored abroad may be accessed without court oversight.

Attorney general Loretta Lynch approved the new rules permitting the NSA to disseminate “raw signals intelligence information” on 3 January 2017 and made it public just over a week later.

However, the rules were signed by national intelligence director James Clapper on 15 December 2016, according to a largely declassified copy of the procedures, just two weeks after the US introduced wide new hacking powers for federal agents.

Changes to rule 41 of the US federal rules of criminal procedure allow judges to issue search warrants that authorise the FBI to remotely access computers in any jurisdiction.

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The changes went into effect despite efforts to block them by Democratic senator Ron Wyden, who told the US Senate that the new law would give the government “unprecedented authority to hack into Americans’ personal phones, computers and other devices”.

The US Justice Department argued that outdated statutes had hampered crime-fighting efforts, which is similar to the argument used by the UK’s Home Office to justify the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, which, despite opposition from technology companies and civil rights groups, passed into law on 29 November 2016.

The bill received royal assent just days after a petition opposing the planned legislation topped the 100,000 signatures that should have triggered a parliamentary debate.

The petition has now gathered more than 200,000 signatures, spurring civil rights group Liberty to appeal for donations to cover the costs of challenging the lawfulness of bulk surveillance powers in the new Investigatory Powers Act.

The crowdsourcing appeal quickly passed its initial target of raising £10,000 by 8 February 2017. At the time of writing, £43,670 of a new target of £50,000 had been pledged by 1,535 supporters.

Liberty said the response to the appeal meant it could go ahead with plans to request permission from the UK High Court to proceed with its case against the government.

“If we are successful in getting through to the next stage of the case, our costs will go up considerably, so please continue to donate and share our page,” Liberty said in an update on the fundraising site.

“If we don’t receive permission to proceed with the case (we are confident we will), we will use the funds raised for our campaigning on surveillance and digital rights – digital campaigning, raising awareness through the media, providing training on digital security, and policy work to get parliament to stand up for our rights,” the civil rights group said.

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