NSA director gives PRISM primer in tense Black Hat keynote

Only a handful of National Security Agency staff have the power to run checks on the US phone records list, NSA director Keith Alexander claimed today at the Black Hat keynote, facing an at-times vocal crowd at the annual security conference. Attempting to challenge widespread assumptions that the NSA has carte-blanche by the courts to monitor, phone-tap, and generally carry out intrusive surveillance against anybody they wish, General Alexander said he had first hand experience of how reluctant to grant approval the courts could actually be, describing the process as "wire brushings".

"I've heard the court is a rubber stamp" he said during his speech, Forbes reports. "I'm on the other end of that table, against that table of judges that don't take any – I'm trying to think of a word here – from even a four-star general. They want to make sure what we're doing comports with the constitution and the law ... I can tell you from the wire brushings I've received, they are not a rubber stamp."

Alexander's argument also concerned exactly how many people have access to NSA records and logs, which he suggested was far fewer than many following the PRISM controversy might assume.

Of everyone at the NSA, only 22 can approve numbers on the US metadata/business records list, he claimed, TechCrunch reports. A total of 35 analysts are then authorized to actually run the queries.

In fact, Alexander told the audience, less than 300 numbers were approved for queries in 2012 overall. Of those, twelve resulted in reports to the FBI. The NSA obtains the date and time of the call and its duration, as well as the address called and called-from. The origin of the metadata record (including site and source) is also accessible, though not voice or text content, subscriber information (such as name or address), credit card numbers, or locational information.

Nonetheless, the NSA chief faced an at times contrary crowd, and was heckled at least once. "You lied to Congress" one audience member shouted during the general's speech, "why would people believe you're not lying to us right now?"

Alexander denied that, saying instead that "I haven't lied to Congress" and that he believes "it's important for us to have this discussion. Because in my opinion, what you believe is what's written in the press without looking at the facts. This is the greatest technical center of gravity in the world. I ask that you all look at those facts."

Told, at the end of his keynote, that he should "read the constitution" by another audience member, Alexander replied "I have. So should you."

It's not the first time the general has appeared in front of a security-minded crowd of this sort. Last year, in fact, Alexander gave the keynote speech at the DEF CON conference, though this year government security services were "uninvited" from the event as hackers mulled over the documents leaked, in part, by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Update: You can now watch the keynote video [.m4v link]