25 March 2014
NSA Civil Liberties-Privacy Head Becky Richards
Armed With Science
Meet Becky Richards The NSAs New Civil Liberties and Privacy
Posted on March 20, 2014 by jtozer
I think it goes without saying that the National Security Agency had something
of a tumultuous 2013.
The NSA went from basic if not enigmatic anonymity, to front
page news. It was hard to avoid the stories that came out after Edward
Snowdens information leak was piped through international media outlets.
Simply put, people were not happy.
What happened after that was a maelstrom of facts, misinformation, explanation,
paranoia, hyperbole, accusations, condemnations and aggravation on all sides
of the spectrum. At the end of it, many people are still wondering what happened,
whats the real truth, and, perhaps more importantly, what happens now?
The first step, at least for the NSA, is to change some of the ways it does
business as President Obama outlined on Jan. 17, 2014.
One of the primary goals is to make the agency more transparent. To everyone.
And, lets face it, that is going to be an uphill battle. So, in the
interest of redefining how NSA interacts with internal and external audiences,
and improves how it manages privacy and civil liberties, the NSA hired its
first-ever, full-time civil liberties and privacy officer who reports to
Meet Becky Richards.
She was introduced in January as the NSAs official civil liberties
and privacy officer, and has been in the position since February. Her bio
says that she was selected to lead the new NSA Civil Liberties and
Privacy Office at the agencys Fort Meade headquarters, and that
her primary job will be to provide expert advice to the director and
oversee NSAs civil liberties and privacy related activities.
Those are a lot of strong words, but when it comes down to it, who is Becky
Richards? What is her real mission? Will she be able to open up the gates
and show the American people what the NSA does, while still protecting us?
The best way to find out is to go directly to the source. I recently sat
down with Becky to discuss her new job, the way forward and how things are
about to get a lot different around here.
So, lets talk about your position as the Civil Liberties and Privacy
Officer at the National Security Agency.
Its a new position that was announced back in August by the
President. My job is to advise the director, as well as the entire agency,
on how to build privacy and civil liberties considerations into all that
NSA does. Now, its a new position at NSA, but throughout the federal
government there are a number of civil liberties and privacy officer positions,
so the concept is not unusual or new.
Your job is basically making sure that the NSA is doing what they need to
do to protect the American people while not violating their civil rights;
is that what I understand?
Yeah, so its interesting. Ive been at NSA for about
six weeks now and, from certainly what youd read in the newspapers,
it sounds like there arent a lot of protections in place. But Ive
been really impressed by what are the existing privacy and civil liberty
protections that are in place. The agency has a culture of great compliance.
So if you tell people what it is theyre 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.
How are you going to help them do that?
Some of my job is helping to translate what it is the agency is
doing now to protect privacy and civil liberties. Also to work on a going-forward
basis to build privacy into new technologies and make sure that were
considering it and that were documenting what those considerations
Will that documentation be available for people?
Certainly. My goal is to be as transparent with the public as possible.
Now, obviously theres a push and pull associated with that in the
intelligence community, but I am committed to making as much information
as transparent as possible. And also to make it transparent in a way that
is accessible to the average person.
How are you planning to do that?
There is a lot of documentation [that exists]. The DNI, the Director
of National Intelligence, has taken a lot of steps forward to make documents
transparent. A lot of those documents have a lot of legal language and a
lot of technical language, and my goal is to really bring that down and simplify
it. Its difficult to simplify, but its something thats
really important, so that the American public understands what the mission
of NSA is and how they are protecting privacy and civil liberties.
Theres a lot of legalese everywhere. Like the general terms and conditions
contracts that people sign just to listen to music. Can the NSA make itself
more transparent than that?
We certainly can try. Thats certainly what our goal is. I
think its amazing how difficult it is to simplify what it is an agency
is doing. 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. Theres been a lot of information
out in the public, and we need to do a better job of helping them understand
how were protecting their privacy, how were protecting national
Lets talk about your personal mission at the NSA. What do you, Becky
Richards, hope to achieve at the NSA?
I want to ensure that we build privacy and civil liberties
considerations into what the agency does, and ensure that the right people
are making the right decisions as it relates to those assessments. So,
identifying where we can work with existing processes to build those assessments,
and to build off of existing work thats happening there. This is so
that a year or three years or five years from now, were able to comfortably
demonstrate what it is were doing.
Theres a lot of discussion about how we do protect privacy,
and what I want to do is be able to demonstrate that we have complete
documentation and that we are able to add more protections when its
Lets talk a little bit about the military. How does the NSA aid the
military or help with military missions?
Well, as you may know, the NSA is part of the Department of Defense.
A large portion of our workforce is active military. In addition to that,
we actually have our NSA employees deployed with our military when missions
are in harms way. We have two parts of what NSA does. We have both
the signals intelligence aspect, and then we have the information assurance,
which is ensuring that our military communications remain secure.
So you work in conjunction with the military?
We work very much in conjunction with the military. They are very
much part and parcel of what we do at NSA.
In your own words, what is it about the work of the National Security Agency
that makes it so significant?
NSA is interested in protecting the privacy of U.S. citizens as
well as foreign nationals who do not wish to do harm to this country. This
was recently reiterated by the President in January when he issued a directive
stating that we would be protecting the privacy and civil liberties of both
U.S. persons and non-U.S. persons.
What do you think is the most impressive or beneficial thing about your new
There have been privacy and civil liberties at NSA, but they have
been in a couple of different places. A key aspect to my job is making it
a focal point of what the agency does, and to ensure that its built
in from the very beginning of projects and that its considered upfront.
So its a really important job, and Im very honored to have been
chosen by Gen. Alexander to take this job on. And its key to the success
of this agency as we move forward.
I imagine this mission will continue to get interesting as you move forward.
Absolutely. I think that were at the crux of a very interesting
time period as information continues to be a very important asset to this
its also very important to our very democracy to
ensure that people feel their privacy and civil liberties are being appropriately
If there is one thing that you could relay to the American people, one message,
what would that message be?
What I want the American public to know is that the employees of
NSA are just like you and me. They are interested in protecting privacy and
civil liberties, and theyre interested in protecting your national
security. Thats a really important aspect. What we need to be doing
better is to be more transparent with the American public so that you can
have the confidence that we are protecting your privacy and civil
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I am honored to take this position. It is definitely an exciting
challenge to take on. And my commitment is to be transparent with the American
public, and to continue to work to ensure that their privacy and civil liberties
are protected as NSA continues its mission.
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science. She is
an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute
to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.