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Poll: Should the NSA and FBI monitor the Internet for foreign hackers?

The National Security Agency's indiscriminate collection of Americans' phone records in the hope of identifying terrorists didn't sit well with the body politic, which is why Congress recently voted to end that practice.

But what about the NSA's snooping on major Internet traffic hubs to look for signs of foreign hackers?

Reporting on a new leak from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who blew the whistle on the NSA's phone monitoring, the New York Times revealed a secret cybersecurity effort by the NSA and the FBI based on the former's collection and processing capabilities at many of the "chokepoints operated by U.S. [telecommunications] providers through which international communications enter and leave the United States."

Authorized by classified orders the FBI had obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the FBI and NSA collected metadata -- for example, information about the source and destination of the traffic -- and, for some specific communications, the content as well. But the Times reported that the Justice Department allowed the collection only of "addresses and 'cybersignatures' — patterns associated with computer intrusions — that it could tie to foreign governments."

Is this a major affront to Americans' privacy, a la PRISM or the hoovering up of phone data? Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution fellow who's a national security wonk, argues that it is not. "What [the Times] breathlessly calls a 'warrantless wiretapping' of Americans’ Internet traffic is, in fact, a rather predictable application of Section 702 to overseas cybersecurity threats from foreign governments, one it would be frankly shocking if NSA were not doing," Wittes wrote on the Lawfare blog (his emphasis, not mine).

Greg Nojeim, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology, was not so sanguine.

According to the center, the latest leak shows how the government has stretched the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, using a provision that authorizes collecting data on foreign targets (Section 702) to sweep up Americans' communications.

"The backdoor search loophole in Section 702 of FISA is a far bigger problem than we thought," Nojeim said in a statement Friday. "Unlike the bulk collection of phone records under Section 215, collection under Section 702 gets the actual content of communications. The scope of this incidental collection of Americans' communications in the name of cybersecurity is just not acceptable."

What do you think? Take our regrettably hackable poll, leave a comment, or do both!

Follow Healey's intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

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