NSA’s new privacy chief finds ‘culture of great compliance’

It’s been a little more than six weeks since the National Security Agency named Rebecca Richards as its first civil liberties and privacy officer. And so far, the former Department of Homeland Security privacy official said she’s been very happy with what she’s found at NSA.

“I’ve been really impressed by what are the existing privacy and civil liberty protections that are in place,” Richards told the Defense Department’s Armed With Science blog. “The agency has a culture of great compliance. So if you tell people what it is they’re supposed to do, they are absolutely doing it. As I like to say, it seems like compliance is in their veins. They really understand what it means to protect privacy.”

NSA announced Jan. 29 Richards’ appointment, along with the creation of a new Civil Liberties and Privacy Office at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters. Richards’ primary responsibility is to provide privacy advice to the NSA director and oversight of NSA’s civil liberties- and privacy-related activities. She’s also responsible for developing new methods of integrating privacy and civil liberties protections into existing and new NSA programs and technologies.

“Some of my job is helping to translate what it is the agency is doing now to protect privacy and civil liberties,” Richards said in her recent interview with the Defense Department’s internal news organization. “Also to work on a going‑forward basis to build privacy into new technologies and make sure that we’re considering it and that we’re documenting what those considerations are.”


Perhaps her most important and difficult responsibility will be that of explaining NSA’s mission to the public at large while demonstrating how the agency is taking steps to protect the privacy of average citizens in the U.S. and around the world. Much of NSA’s work must, by its very nature, remain classified to protect sources and methods of electronic intelligence gathering. But the ongoing controversy surrounding the agency’s bulk collection of telephone metadata and other content surveillance activities has placed a premium on transparency as the agency attempts to regain the public’s trust.

“I think it’s amazing how difficult it is to simplify what it is an agency is doing,” Richards said. “But it is really important because in order to be successful at protecting national security, we need to have the support of the American public, and they have a lot of questions. There’s been a lot of information out in the public, and we need to do a better job of helping them understand how we’re protecting their privacy, how we’re protecting national security.”

Meet Becky Richards (Source: The Official Defense Department Science Blog).

Reporter’s note: The introduction chosen by DOD for this interview doesn’t do much to help NSA’s public perception problems.


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