By Jim Clancy and Tim Lister
The revelation that the US National Security Agency (NSA) allows Israel to see raw intelligence data it gathers has angered privacy and civil liberties activists, but surprised few security analysts.
The agreement was disclosed by the Guardian newspaper Wednesday, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has provided the newspaper with reams of classified information.
An undated Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Israel sets out the ground-rules by which the NSA 'routinely' provides raw intelligence data to the Israelis. It defines raw ‘Sigint’ as including “unevaluated and unminimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice and Digital Network Intelligence metadata and content."
The Memorandum includes provisions designed to protect the privacy of Americans whose data might be shared with the Israeli SIGINT National Unit (ISNU). It opens with a preamble that the sharing of information must be “consistent with the requirements placed upon NSA by US law and Executive Order to establish safeguards protecting the rights of US persons under the Fourth Amendment” of the US Constitution guaranteeing individual privacy.
The NSA in a statement to CNN said: "We are not going to comment on any specific information sharing arrangements, or the authority under which any such information is collected. The fact that intelligence services work together under specific and regulated conditions mutually strengthens the security of both nations.
“Whenever we share intelligence information, we comply with all applicable rules, including the rules to protect U.S. person information,” the NSA added.
The Memorandum says that after a meeting in March 2009 it was determined that more formalized training for ISNU was needed to ensure that raw data which includes personal information is handled properly. It also says that the Israelis should consult the NSA’s local liaison officer when such information is found and ensure ‘appropriate management controls’ are in place.
But the memorandum also allows the Israelis to retain any files containing the identities of US persons for up to a year. And just what procedures exist for monitoring the Israelis’ use and distribution of NSA data is unclear, beyond a clause that says the NSA will "regularly review a sample of files transferred to ISNU to validate the absence of US persons' identities.”
It notes that the US already had agreements with Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to protect information that identified their citizens. The group is known as the ‘Five Eyes’ inside the intelligence community.
Nimrod Kozlovski, head of Tel Aviv University’s program for cyber studies says the extent and depth of co-operation should not be seen as a surprise.
A 20-year veteran of the IT industry in Israel, Kozlovski told CNN that the nature of intelligence-gathering had been transformed. Gone were the days when an individual would be pinpointed and information developed.
“Now they try to collect as much data as they can…and try to apply algorithms to be able to analyze patterns, identify anomalies or track profiles.” Kozlovski describes this as ‘predictive security,’ heavily reliant on such techniques as anomaly detection engines. Using redacted data would not be sufficient for this approach, he says.
For the US – with its written constitutional protections – this can be problematic, but there are ways to identify an individual, by assigning a unique number for example, without sharing their personal information.
In Washington, Rep Mike Rodgers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the way the US-Israeli understanding had been portrayed.
“This notion that the agency is collecting on U.S. persons and giving it to any foreign intelligence agency in the way it was described is completely wrong,” he said.
“ That's not what is happening. I can't go into a lot of other detail, but I can guarantee you the privacy of Americans are protected in the way we operate, Rep. Rogers added.
The Guardian also reports on other documents provided by Snowden, which purport to show that the US-Israel relationship is not always so co-operative. It quotes one NSA official as writing in 2008: "On the one hand, the Israelis are extraordinarily good Sigint partners for us, but on the other, they target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems.”
"A NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] ranked them as the third most aggressive intelligence service against the US," the official wrote, according to the Guardian.
“There are parameters on what NSA shares with them, but the exchange is so robust, we sometimes share more than we intended," the official added.
News of the agreement has made the front pages of some Israeli newspapers, but unnamed officials here have spoken of a 'reciprocal process in intelligence sharing. One unnamed security official was quoted on the website Walla News as saying: “Ever since the Twin Tower disaster, the walls between the countries have come down and the understanding was reached that terrorism needs to be fought together, and that the more we exchange intelligence, the more effective the war on terrorism.”
According to Israeli experts, the department that leads the country’s collection and analysis of intelligence data is called Unit 8200, one of the largest in the Isreali Defense Forces. Kozlovski says this elite unit has made many breakthroughs in how intelligence gathered by technical means is structured and assessed, which has made it an attractive partner for allied governments. It has also provided Israel’s thriving cyber businesses with a pool of highly-qualified expertise.