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NSA chief talks at skeptical hackers’ conference

July 31, 2013

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The head of the National Security Agency faced hecklers as he defended the U.S. government’s much-criticized surveillance program in a speech to a hackers’ conference Wednesday, and he had a challenge for them: If you don’t like it, help build a better one.

“You’re the greatest tech talent anywhere in the world. Help us,” Army Gen. Keith Alexander said to the annual Black Hat conference. He spoke to the corporate and government security analyst crowd, not the one later in the week for the more counter-culture types.

Alexander explained how government methods used to collect telephone and email data helped block 54 terror plots since 1993. He said the data led to the disruption of 13 terror plots in the U.S., 25 in Europe, five in Africa and 11 in Asia. He spoke of a thwarted plot to bomb the New York City subway system in September 2009 but didn’t specify others.

He was interrupted at times by hecklers, but he also drew applause.

“Our nation takes stopping terrorism seriously,” he said.

“Freedom!” one man shouted.

“Exactly. We stand for freedom,” Alexander said.

“Bulls--t,” the heckler said.

“Not bad,” Alexander replied before continuing.

The NSA chief didn’t refer specifically to leaks by former NSA systems analyst contractor Edward Snowden of classified documents that brought attention to the government’s surveillance efforts.

Alexander denied another heckler’s claim that he lied to Congress about methods the NSA uses to “go after the bad actors who may want to do us harm.”

He said it wasn’t true the agency listens to specific phone calls and reads emails. He emphasized oversight of his programs by Congress, courts and the administration. He also explained the type of broad “metadata” that he said the agency collects from communications abroad: Date, duration, phone number calling, phone number receiving, and a note about the authorizing entity.

“There are no names in the database,” he said. “No addresses. No credit card numbers. The database is like a lockbox.”

Ted Doty, a computer product security manager, said he wasn’t convinced. He said he suspected the government submits emails and text communications to transcription software and searches it using algorithms to find key words and phrases.

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