Meet Becky Richards – The NSA’s New Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer | Armed with Science

I think it goes without saying that the National Security Agency had something of a tumultuous 2013.

The NSA went from basic – if not enigmatic – anonymity, to front page news.  It was hard to avoid the stories that came out after Edward Snowden’s information leak was piped through international media outlets.

Simply put, people were not happy.

What happened after that was a maelstrom of facts, misinformation, explanation, paranoia, hyperbole, accusations, condemnations and aggravation on all sides of the spectrum.  At the end of it, many people are still wondering what happened, what’s the real truth, and, perhaps more importantly, what happens now?

The first step, at least for the NSA, is to change some of the ways it does business – as President Obama outlined on Jan. 17, 2014.

One of the primary goals is to make the agency more transparent.  To everyone.  And, let’s face it, that is going to be an uphill battle.  So, in the interest of redefining how NSA interacts with internal and external audiences, and improves how it manages privacy and civil liberties, the NSA hired its first-ever, full-time civil liberties and privacy officer who reports to the director.

Meet Becky Richards. 

NSA Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer Becky Richards talks to Armed with Science blogger Jessica L. Tozer about the way ahead and transparency for the organization. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley/ Released)

She was introduced in January as the NSA’s official civil liberties and privacy officer, and has been in the position since February.  Her bio says that she was “selected to lead the new NSA Civil Liberties and Privacy Office at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters,” and that her “primary job will be to provide expert advice to the director and oversee NSA’s civil liberties and privacy related activities.”

Those are a lot of strong words, but when it comes down to it, who is Becky Richards?  What is her real mission?  Will she be able to open up the gates and show the American people what the NSA does, while still protecting us? The best way to find out is to go directly to the source.  I recently sat down with Becky to discuss her new job, the way forward and how things are about to get a lot different around here.

So, let’s talk about your position as the Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer at the National Security Agency.

“It’s a new position that was announced back in August by the President.  My job is to advise the director, as well as the entire agency, on how to build privacy and civil liberties considerations into all that NSA does.  Now, it’s a new position at NSA, but throughout the federal government there are a number of civil liberties and privacy officer positions, so the concept is not unusual or new.”

Your job is basically making sure that the NSA is doing what they need to do to protect the American people while not violating their civil rights; is that what I understand? 

“Yeah, so it’s interesting.  I’ve been at NSA for about six weeks now and, from certainly what you’d read in the newspapers, it sounds like there aren’t a lot of protections in place.  But I’ve been really impressed by what are the existing privacy and civil liberty protections that are in place.  The agency has a culture of great compliance.  So if you tell people what it is they’re supposed to do, they are absolutely doing it.  As I like to say, it seems like compliance is in their veins.  They really understand what it means to protect privacy.”

How are you going to help them do that?

“Some of my job is helping to translate what it is the agency is doing now to protect privacy and civil liberties.  Also to work on a going‑forward basis to build privacy into new technologies and make sure that we’re considering it and that we’re documenting what those considerations are.”

Will that documentation be available for people? 

“Certainly.  My goal is to be as transparent with the public as possible.  Now, obviously there’s a push and pull associated with that in the intelligence community, but I am committed to making as much information as transparent as possible.  And also to make it transparent in a way that is accessible to the average person.”

How are you planning to do that?

“There is a lot of documentation [that exists].  The DNI, the Director of National Intelligence, has taken a lot of steps forward to make documents transparent.  A lot of those documents have a lot of legal language and a lot of technical language, and my goal is to really bring that down and simplify it.  It’s difficult to simplify, but it’s something that’s really important, so that the American public understands what the mission of NSA is and how they are protecting privacy and civil liberties.”

There’s a lot of legalese everywhere.  Like the general terms and conditions contracts that people sign just to listen to music.  Can the NSA make itself more transparent than that?

“We certainly can try. That’s certainly what our goal is. I think it’s amazing how difficult it is to simplify what it is an agency is doing. But it is really important because in order to be successful at protecting national security, we need to have the support of the American public, and they have a lot of questions.  There’s been a lot of information out in the public, and we need to do a better job of helping them understand how we’re protecting their privacy, how we’re protecting national security.”

NSA Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer Becky Richards talks to Armed with Science blogger Jessica L. Tozerr about the way ahead and transparency for the organization. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley/Released)

Let’s talk about your personal mission at the NSA.  What do you, Becky Richards, hope to achieve at the NSA?

“I want to ensure that we build privacy and civil liberties considerations into what the agency does, and ensure that the right people are making the right decisions as it relates to those assessments.  So, identifying where we can work with existing processes to build those assessments, and to build off of existing work that’s happening there.  This is so that a year or three years or five years from now, we’re able to comfortably demonstrate what it is we’re doing.”

“There’s a lot of discussion about how we do protect privacy, and what I want to do is be able to demonstrate that we have complete documentation and that we are able to add more protections when it’s needed.”

Let’s talk a little bit about the military.  How does the NSA aid the military or help with military missions? 

“Well, as you may know, the NSA is part of the Department of Defense.  A large portion of our workforce is active military.  In addition to that, we actually have our NSA employees deployed with our military when missions are in harm’s way.  We have two parts of what NSA does.  We have both the signals intelligence aspect, and then we have the information assurance, which is ensuring that our military communications remain secure.”

So you work in conjunction with the military?

“We work very much in conjunction with the military.  They are very much part and parcel of what we do at NSA.”

In your own words, what is it about the work of the National Security Agency that makes it so significant? 

“NSA is interested in protecting the privacy of U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals who do not wish to do harm to this country.  This was recently reiterated by the President in January when he issued a directive stating that we would be protecting the privacy and civil liberties of both U.S. persons and non‑U.S. persons.”

What do you think is the most impressive or beneficial thing about your new position?

Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Cyber Command commander and National Security Agency director, speaks with Armed with Science blogger Jessica L. Tozer during an interview at the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Md., Oct. 21, 2013. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley/ Released)

“There have been privacy and civil liberties at NSA, but they have been in a couple of different places.  A key aspect to my job is making it a focal point of what the agency does, and to ensure that it’s built in from the very beginning of projects and that it’s considered upfront.  So it’s a really important job, and I’m very honored to have been chosen by Gen. Alexander to take this job on.  And it’s key to the success of this agency as we move forward.”

I imagine this mission will continue to get interesting as you move forward.

“Absolutely.  I think that we’re at the crux of a very interesting time period as information continues to be a very important asset to this country, and …it’s also very important to our very democracy to ensure that people feel their privacy and civil liberties are being appropriately protected.”

If there is one thing that you could relay to the American people, one message, what would that message be?

“What I want the American public to know is that the employees of NSA are just like you and me. They are interested in protecting privacy and civil liberties, and they’re interested in protecting your national security.  That’s a really important aspect.  What we need to be doing better is to be more transparent with the American public so that you can have the confidence that we are protecting your privacy and civil liberties.”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

“I am honored to take this position.  It is definitely an exciting challenge to take on.  And my commitment is to be transparent with the American public, and to continue to work to ensure that their privacy and civil liberties are protected as NSA continues its mission.”

Related content: read the Armed with Science interview with Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Cyber Command commander and National Security Agency director


Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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