With all the talk about the new wiretapping law the Senate is expected to approve this week, there are many federal surveillance programs that are going largely unmentioned -- and unmonitored.
A story from the Baltimore Sun
points out how limited the proposed FISA legislation is when considered against the whole alphabet soup of surveillance programs run by the federal government.
Although the latest FISA proposal includes numerous provisions for a secret court to monitor and authorize surveillance, and for inspectors general to keep tabs on who's being monitored by various agencies, little oversight exists for surveillance programs that fall outside FISA scrutiny.
For example, the new law will limit whether a CIA transcript of a conversation between a alleged terrorist and his relative in the United States could be shared with other spy agencies and analysts.
But it would have little control over whether, say, the Department of Homeland Security can share wiretaps or satellite surveillance with local law enforcement officials.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have requested information about these other surveillance programs, but many agencies are often reluctant to comply, citing security or secrecy concerns, the Sun
Even when Congress has received information, lawmakers say their questions or concerns are often addressed within the agency that is responsible for the surveillance, amounting to a practice of self-policing.
"You don't have to look far into history to know that when the government, any government, is given secret authorities, that those authorities are ultimately abused," said Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "You don't even have to attribute bad motives to anyone. In an intelligence officer's zeal to protect the country, they often will overstep their bounds."
In response to concerns, the Department of Homeland Security has created a privacy czar to see that federal agencies do not infringe on privacy laws or violate civil liberties. But some suggest that should be a Cabinet-level post in the executive branch since new technologies are constantly creating new questions and concerns.
"We should have what Canada has, which is a minister of privacy, someone looking out for the privacy issues of Americans," said James Bamford, an intelligence expert and author on two books about the history of the NSA. "We have armies of people out there trying to pick into everyone's private life, but we have nobody out there who's an advocate."
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal
reports today about concerns that non-government surveillance is being abused for advertising purposes.
Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee plans a hearing on the privacy issues raised by online advertising. Critics, meanwhile, are questioning whether the practices used by NebuAd and other ad-targeting companies violate wiretap laws, which prevent carriers from monitoring customer communications.