When then-NSA director Keith Alexander gave the keynote address at the Black Hat hackers convention in Las Vegas in 2013, he made an unusual pitch to the attendees: He asked them to help the NSA come up with ways to protect Americans' privacy and civil liberties.
"How do we start this discussion on defending our nation and protecting our civil liberties and privacy?" Alexander asked the crowd. "The reason I'm here is because you may have some ideas of how we can do it better. We need to hear those ideas."
There were some hecklers. Alexander's appeal came just a few weeks after journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman first revealed details about the NSA's vast surveillance programs that targeted American citizens, information based on highly classified documents they received from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Still, Alexander asked the attendees — and, on the NSA's website, all Americans — to send their suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
VICE News subsequently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the agency to find out if anyone wrote. It took the NSA nearly two years to respond.
Last week, the NSA turned over 14 emails sent to email@example.com, the grand total of what it received after Alexander's call for proposals [pdf at the end of this story]. The NSA protected the privacy of the individuals who submitted the emails by redacting their names.
One person who submitted an idea on July 31, 2013 said, "Keep fighting the good fight not everyone is against you."
"Everyone seems up in arms over the fact that the NSA 'Can' do certain things even if the law keeps you from doing them," the person wrote. "Here is an idea for you to mull over. Just hear me out. Pipe all incoming information from any sort of interception program with the capability of collecting on American citizens through a process that uses the power of math (crypto) to protect individual privacy and yet still allows you the capability to unlock it in the case that you can prove (mathematically) that person is a threat."
'I did actually give you my cell number above. Not that you couldn't have found it anyways. =P'
The person then went on to explain in great detail exactly how the process would work after, the person wrote in the email after "about 15 minutes of focused thought." Yan Zhu, a technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told VICE News she doubted the NSA would seriously consider the idea.
"The proposed design fails to offer any meaningful protection for 'individual privacy' because NSA generates the encryption keys; there's nothing stopping them from saving those and using them to decrypt anything whenever they want," Zhu said.
An idea submitted on August 1, 2013 by a person who claimed to hold a top-secret security clearance under the subject line "A solution that works for all" called for a "tokenization system that takes all incoming data and encrypts the original data for storage in a place that no user has direct access to."
The person said if the NSA was interested in discussing the proposal, the agency should call.
"I did actually give you my cell number above," the emailer wrote. "Not that you couldn't have found it anyways. =P"
One person who claimed to be a former soldier submitted an idea the same day that called for the NSA to track terrorists by affording "journalists abroad to contribute to the intelligence community," a relationship that "should be 'in the shadows.'"
"The United States cannot prevent an attack on its soil if it does not work alongside journalists," the person wrote. "However, the relationship should be 'in the shadows.' This meaning, to pinpoint a target, a journalist must be urged not to repeat their writing as a 'breaking story.' I do hope that my email does not come across as anything more than a patriotic act from a former soldier who cares about the safety of his loved ones more than a possibility of losing their own freedom in the process. God Bless the USA."
One e-mailer didn't have any ideas to offer. The person simply wanted the NSA to know that it's "doing a remarkable job at keeping the enemy at bay."
"I'll be damned if I know what these fools are complaining about, but you can bet they'd be clamoring at NSA's doorstep if they were victimized by some terrorist," the person wrote. "I don't care for intrusions into my privacy but there is a time and place when and where that is the only way we can keep ourselves safe from attacks…. I know abuses will happen. That is human nature. But I believe the good that is done far outweighs the bad. Please keep up the good work. Always on your side."
On August 2, a person submitted an email saying that, "I do not have a solution other than more restrictions on people."
Another emailer said the NSA could simply "stop keeping US citizen data indefinitely" if it really wanted to protect privacy and civil liberties. "Why not roll it off after 30 days if there is no link to terror suspected?" the August 7, 2013 email said. Moreover, "allow a independent 3rd party to validate your clams [sic] that there is 100% audit ability and that you are only collecting metadata not full content."
One person believed the NSA could target terrorists by forcing immigrants to join the military, which would "put a damper of any budding terrorist entering the country as they would be at risk of conscription and military rule…. I think a limited conscription. That requires every landed immigrant that is of a certain age to join the military for two years. Regardless of creed or religion. This would not entail military combat training…. The last thing is needed is highly trained disgruntled immigrants."
An idea sent to the NSA on February 6, 2014 suggested that the agency could equip drones with "facial recognition, weapon detention and a stun gun" and place them in locations "where risk of violence is high."
"Once a face and a weapon has been detected, the drone would swiftly fly to the target and fire electrodes at the intruder, thereby incapacitating them and allowing the weapon to be secured by personnel it trusts," the person wrote. "This innovation, could in theory, help combat armed robbery."
The person did not present any ideas about how the NSA could protect individuals' privacy.
The NSA did not respond to VICE News' questions about whether the agency adopted or explored any of the ideas that were submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold
Topics: nsa, national security agency, edward snowden, keith alexander, black hat, hackers, defcon, privacy, civil liberties, drones, spying, surveillance, prism, email, foia, freedom of information act, primary sources, primary sources: the vice news foia blog, americas, united states, defense & security