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In our opinion: The NSA needs to be reformed

Published: Monday, Dec. 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

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Several major technology companies have called on Congress and the Obama Administration to put limits on the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency, and it’s a plea that deserves a response from the government beyond more lip service.

A coalition of tech giants led by Google and Microsoft is demanding better regulation and meaningful restrictions on the NSA’s reach into billions of private online and cellular transmissions. The protest is a welcome development, even if self-interest is afoot. The tech giants’ collective profitability is threatened if patrons believe their privacy is compromised when they enter their portals.

The nation has come to learn in recent months that privacy has indeed been forfeited as a result of the NSA’s apparently unquenchable thirst for data. As this issue has unfolded, two things stand out as particularly disturbing.

First, it has become clear that self-restraint is not in the NSA’s institutional character. The agency seems to work under the charter that if something can be spied upon it shall be spied upon. A case in point is the recent disclosure regarding NSA surveillance of online gaming activities.

Second, government response to these revelations has been tepid at best, and patronizing at worst. Congressional hearings have been held, with the appropriate show of bluster, but little else. The White House has commissioned an advisory panel to look into the issue, and early reports indicate it will recommend some significant new regulations.

We wait with anticipation just what will come of the panel’s work. Typically, appointing a task force to investigate a hot-button issue is a ploy to buy time while the issue simmers down, but it’s unlikely this issue will soon move from the boiling point.

Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who calls himself a whistleblower, has apparently doled out a hefty cache of data on NSA activities to various news media, guaranteeing a steady dribble of new disclosures. Consternation over the NSA’s reach has crossed over political and ideological lines, uniting civil libertarians and small-government conservatives. Add now, with the entrée of the nation’s tech industry, a formidable front is formed in the battle for more transparency and regulation.

Yes, we understand that the NSA has a vital role in preventing acts of terrorism, and that it’s search for signs of dangerous activity is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The problem is the size of the haystack the NSA has built to search for needles. A special branch of the federal courts has presumably authorized each incursion into a new database, but over time, new layers of surveillance have piled up to form an unwieldy mass that covers much of the world.

As the coalition of tech companies said in its open letter of protest, “the balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor the state and away from the rights of the individual.”

Correcting the imbalance will require the NSA to adopt a new modus operandi, and it’s not likely to do so on its own. Congressional and executive action is necessary, and such action is best taken sooner than later.

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