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NSA Director Speaks At Hacker Conference With Mixed Reviews


More now on those leaked documents in The Guardian and another major voice in the debate over surveillance: General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA. He spoke today at a conference in Las Vegas called Black Hat. That's an annual gathering of hackers and computer security professionals. NPR's Steve Henn was at the speech and joins us now from Las Vegas. Hey there, Steve.


CORNISH: So, first, help us understand the documents published in The Guardian that Larry just mentioned. They're about NSA data mining programs, including details about something called XKeyscore. What is that?

HENN: Well, XKeyscore is part of an NSA program focused on foreign targets. And it reportedly allows analysts at the NSA to get at the contents of emails and other Web traffic, like social media exchanges or even Web searches. According to The Guardian, the program indexes large amounts of digital traffic and makes it searchable. So analysts can, say, enter an email address and a time period they're interested in and then read through the contents of the email inbox that they targeted.

They could also use other search terms or enter, say, an IP address and then see the specific websites a person of interest was visiting.

CORNISH: So as General Alexander was addressing this crowd of security professionals and hackers, did he address this?

HENN: Well, not directly. The NSA released a statement saying that allegations of unchecked analysts' access to NSA data are untrue. And General Alexander did talk about the foreign intelligence surveillance program that XKeyscore is part of. In his talk, he stressed that the program was overseen by the courts, that it's audited, that the number of people who are permitted to search these enormous data sets the NSA collects are tightly controlled.

And at times, General Alexander expressed a lot of frustration about these leaks and the accusations that what his analysts could be up to might be illegal. Here he is.

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: And we get all these allegations of what they could be doing, but when people check, like the intelligence committee, they found zero times that's happened. And that's no (bleep). Those are facts.

CORNISH: So, some tough talk there from General Alexander. How did the crowd actually respond to this?

HENN: Well, you know, he got some applause for that line, but there were thousands of people in the audience and I'd say the reaction was varied. You know, he clearly wants some points for showing up and taking questions, but there's still a lot of distrust. At several points during his speech, he was actually heckled and shouted at. And those hard feelings aren't limited to sort of the fringe hackers in the audience.

You know, General Alexander actually spent all day yesterday out here. He spent a lot of time in a closed-door meeting with technology leaders from some of the biggest companies in the country. And afterward, I spoke to some of the people who were in that room and one said, quote, "when the director of national intelligence lies to Congress, why would we believe anything General Alexander says in a meeting at Black Hat?"

You know, for a lot of these executives, these stories about the NSA and what the agency is doing is really having a real impact on their business.

CORNISH: What do they mean by that?

HENN: Well, let's say you're an entrepreneur and you're interested in selling secure data services and analytics. Your international clients are now worried about whether or not their information will be safe if it's held in servers that the NSA can access. So I've talked to businesspeople who are not only now building servers overseas, but are taking steps to completely segregate their systems, so U.S. employees actually can't access the data held abroad.

You know, this has a real financial impact and at the end of his speech, Alexander was asked about this. You know, he was asked if the NSA was hurting the U.S. technology economy. His response I don't think satisfied a lot of people, but basically it was like, look, other countries do this, too.

CORNISH: Steve, lastly, why would the NSA head agree to do this, given the controversy?

HENN: Why would he come to speak to hackers? Well, basically, you know, some of the brightest minds in computer security in the world come here and this has been a prime recruiting ground for the NSA for years. They have to stay on top of what goes on here and if you're trying to hire these people, your reputation matters a lot.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Steve Henn, speaking with us from Las Vegas. Steve, thank you.

HENN: My pleasure. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.