The NSA's New Privacy Protection Officer: Closing the Barn Door after the Pony Has Run Off?

January 29, 2014
By: Tracey E. Schelmetic

It probably seems like a bit of a punch line today: what’s the least effective job in the world? Selling ice in Antarctica? Being the chief vegetable officer in a primary school cafeteria? Or being appointed as the National Security Agency’s (News - Alert) chief privacy officer?

While we’re not sure if anyone has the first two thankless jobs, the latter position is (or soon will be) a reality. The beleaguered federal agency recently announced that it has hired someone to take the helm of its newly created job of primary adviser to the NSA’s director for civil liberties and privacy protection.

According to the Washington Post, this new position is focused on the future,” the agency’s September job announcement said, and is “designed to directly enhance decision making and to ensure that [civil liberties and privacy] protections continue to be baked into NSA’s future operations, technologies, tradecraft, and policies.”

The creation of the position was first alluded to in a White House press release that outlined a series of reforms intending to reign in runaway NSA spying powers. The release noted that the NSA would be “taking steps to put in place a full time Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer” in place.

“This new position is focused on the future, designed to directly enhance decision making and to ensure that [civil liberties and privacy] protections continue to be baked into NSA's future operations, technologies, tradecraft, and policies,” said the release.

The phrase “closing the barn door after the pony has run out” comes to mind. With each new revelation about the extent of the NSA’s global spying network, Americans’ illusions of privacy in their communications dissipate a little more. The revelations, first leaked to the UK newspaper The Guardian by Edward Snowden, formerly an employee of a government contractor, have been raising eyebrows since the middle of last year.

So who is the “lucky” person to fill this job? That prize goes to Rebecca “Becky” Richards, who is currently employed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Privacy Office. Richards will shortly be leaving the DHS to take on the privacy job at the NSA.

Civil libertarians and privacy advocates have expressed doubt over the effectiveness of the position, with many convinced it’s simply window dressing. Speaking to The Hill, Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Domestic Surveillance Project, noted that to be effective, this individual must be given sufficient independence from the NSA “in order to operate effectively, and should be built around principles of public transparency and accountability.”




Edited by Cassandra Tucker