Former NSA official blows whistle on agency's data collection program

With privacy being one of those hot-button issues now that we're living in a post-9/11 world, it can be hard to know who to trust when it comes to whether or not the government is collecting data on you. Take this weekend's development from the DefCon hacker conference, for instance: on the one hand, we have NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander telling attendees that the agency doesn't maintain files on American citizens, while on the other hand, we have former NSA official William Binney claiming during a panel discussion that the NSA does. Who do we trust in this case? We're not positive, but it sure does raise a few questions.

To get a bit more specific, Binney said that the NSA began forming plans to collect data on American citizens before the events of 9/11 even occurred. 9/11, as you might imagine, gave NSA officials the perfect excuse to roll out the program, and it wasn't long before Binney ended up leaving the agency. "It started in February 2001 when they started asking telecoms for data," he said. "That to me tells me that the real plan was to spy on Americans from the beginning." Binney says that the reason he left the agency is because it started "spying on everyone in the country."

Alexander claims that the NSA only spies on foreign entities, and though he seems to admit that the agency sometimes "incidentally" picks up information on American citizens, that information is restricted – "minimized" is the official word – unless there's a crime involved. Binney and the other members of the panel, such as ACLU attorney Alex Abdo, pointed out that there are loopholes in the law that essentially allow the NSA to collect information on American citizens while looking into these "foreign entities," which they can then go back to later if new information on the citizen in question surfaces.

If what Binney and his fellow panel members are saying is true, that's pretty scary. There are plenty of people out there ready and willing to believe that the government is spying on them, and the NSA doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to stuff like this. Ultimately, Binney says that the the oversight Congress has over the NSA is "dependent" on what the NSA tells them, so there's no real way of knowing that the agency is telling the truth. Be sure to check out our story timeline below for more information on the NSA.

[via Wired]