NSA Privacy Chief: Officials Have ‘Privacy in Their Veins’

Rebecca Richards is the National Security Agency’s first chief privacy and civil-liberties officer.

Analyists at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) prepare for Cyber Storm III during a media session at their headquarters in Arlington, VA, September 24, 2010. Cyber Storm III is NCCIC's capstone national-level cybersecurity exercise. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
March 6, 2014, 12:32 p.m.

Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency of­fi­cials care deeply about pro­tect­ing pri­vacy, ac­cord­ing to Re­becca Richards, the agency’s first chief pri­vacy and civil-liber­ties of­ficer.

In her first pub­lic dis­cus­sion since tak­ing of­fice five weeks ago, (NSA)Richards said Thursday that in­tern­al NSA lit­er­at­ure em­phas­ized pri­vacy pro­tec­tion even be­fore Ed­ward Snowden’s leaks shined a spot­light on the agency’s con­tro­ver­sial sur­veil­lance prac­tices.

“These people have it in their veins that they’re pro­tect­ing pri­vacy, that they’re pro­tect­ing U.S. per­sons,” she said at a con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton for pri­vacy pro­fes­sion­als.

But she said a cul­ture of secrecy has hampered the NSA’s abil­ity to de­fend it­self and com­mu­nic­ate its views to the pub­lic.

“I think a lot of my job will be trans­lat­ing from NSA-speak to pub­lic-speak,” she said. “There’s a need to ac­tu­ally be able to talk about things.”

Richards said she will try to en­sure that the NSA builds pri­vacy and civil-liber­ties pro­tec­tions in­to the design of its sur­veil­lance pro­grams. If the NSA has two op­tions for col­lect­ing data that both achieve sim­il­ar na­tion­al se­cur­ity, she said she will push the agency to choose the op­tion that bet­ter pro­tects pri­vacy.

She re­vealed that she is work­ing on a re­port that will out­line what pri­vacy pro­tec­tions ex­ist un­der the vari­ous leg­al au­thor­it­ies the NSA uses to spy on people around the world.

Richards, who pre­vi­ously served as the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment’s top pri­vacy of­ficer, said she still has a lot to learn about the NSA.

“It’s been like drink­ing from a fire­hose,” she said of her first few weeks on the job.

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