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TED/James Duncan Davidson

Security


NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett called former contractor Edward Snowden’s release of documents about his agency’s surveillance programs “inappropriate” and “arrogant” in a video interview from Fort Meade, Md., beamed into the TED conference in Vancouver today. But he acknowledged that the outcry around the Snowden revelations has led the NSA to try to be more transparent.

“The vulnerabilities we find, the overwhelming majority we disclose to the people who are responsible for manufacturing or developing those products,” Ledgett said. “We’re actually working on a proposal right now to be transparent and to publish transparency reports in the same way the Internet companies do.”

Ledgett did not specify how transparent those NSA reports would be, but given the fact that technology companies have sued to be allowed to be more direct in their own public disclosures, an aggressive move toward more openness by the NSA seems unlikely.

Ledgett defended the NSA against Snowden’s repeated claim that there’s no proof that the extensive data gathering has helped U.S. security.

There are a dozen such cases where threats against the United States have been detected through metadata, according to Ledgett.

The trumpeted fact that there is no “but for” case, where, but for the existence of intelligence derived from NSA surveillance data, a terror attack did not happen, “indicates a lack of understanding of how investigations that actually work, work” Ledgett said. “It’s hard to say any one piece of a mosaic was necessary to building a mosaic, but to look at the picture you need all the pieces of information.”

The NSA senior civilian’s last-minute and (ironically) technical-difficulty-plagued appearance at TED was prompted by Snowden’s address to the audience via telepresence robot earlier in the week.

Both men were seeking to explain themselves to an audience full of technology leaders, as well as the larger audience that watches the conference’s long-form videos online.

Ledgett did acknowledge that the Snowden-sparked conversation around privacy and personal data is an important one to have. He said the U.S. wasn’t closed to discussion about giving Snowden some form of amnesty or a plea deal.

The NSA’s metadata monitoring and Internet service information request programs were “authorized by two different presidents, from two different political parties, by Congress and by seven judges, 16 different times,” Ledgett said. “This is not the NSA running off and doing its own thing, this is a legitimate activity that was agreed to by all the branches.”

Ledgett waved off the criticism that the reputation of U.S. technology companies has been hurt by widespread attention to NSA surveillance. “The fact that these revelations have been broadly characterized as ‘you can’t trust companies because your privacy is suspect with them’” is wrong, Ledgett said. He called it a marketing tactic from companies that are based in other countries.

So should average citizens be worried about the government reading their emails and listening to their calls? Ledgett doesn’t think so.

“The only way that we are able to compel one of those companies to provide information is if we can identify this particular person as associated with terrorists or proliferation,” he said. “We don’t, contrary to some of the stuff that’s been printed, sit there and grind out metadata profiles of average people. If you are not contacted by one of our targets, you are not of interest to us.”

“Absolutely, folks should have a right to privacy,” Ledgett said, “and we work very hard to make sure that privacy is protected.”

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