NSA: Employee Privacy Laws Hamper Leak Detection

But don't change those laws, senior official says.

Privacy mandates that prevent the government from monitoring the personal data of National Security Agency employees should not be altered to stop insider threats, despite leaks of Top Secret information, a senior NSA official said on Thursday.

Governmentwide, from the Food and Drug Administration to the Transportation Security Administration, department heads have been cracking down on rogue personnel by installing various forms of spyware. Pfc. Bradley Manning’s alleged disclosure of classified media to anti-secrets website WikiLeaks in 2010 accelerated the development of these technologies.

“This is a case where I wouldn't advocate a change of laws,” NSA Technical Director Boyd Livingston said. “It's very difficult to do insider threat monitoring -- there are a whole other set of federal laws having to do with personal identification information, PII, and your Social Security [number], that prohibit various monitoring." He was speaking at a breakfast organized by Nextgov and the Intelligence National Security Alliance.

This spring, former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden, while posted to Honolulu for NSA cyber analysis, purportedly furnished data on domestic surveillance activities to the press.

“When you become a government employee, and you walk through the door, various rights change," Boyd said. But basically there are various “protections for the individual and that's what we're supposed to be defending."

A Host Based Security System that monitors removable data devices such as CDs and thumb drives, has been activated Defensewide to track unauthorized network activities. But NSA, which is part of the department, might not have been hooked up during Snowden’s tenure. A former NSA information security official said the system was not on agency networks when he left in the summer of 2012.

Microsoft officials, recently battered for aiding NSA data collection, say privacy technologies that compartmentalize certain information, in fact, can be used to counter internal risks. 

"It's in the research that we're doing on the protection of PII, the protection of individual systems and data, that we see a lot of advance actually that can be used against the insider threat," said Lewis Shepherd, director of Microsoft’s Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments.  "They're really not operating at cross-purposes. They're really [working] hand in hand." He also attended Thursday’s event.

At Microsoft's Silicon Valley research and development laboratory, the software giant has combined a privacy research team -- "a very large team actually,” with a cyber science team to synchronize the two aims, Shepherd said.

Microsoft's privacy policies came under attack following disclosures, by Snowden, that the company complied with NSA orders to help the agency circumvent encryption on users' Skype web chats.