Back to top

Out of the Dark

UMass Amherst alum Rebecca Richards ’94 shines light on a controversial spy law.

Rebecca Richards

The work of privacy expert Rebecca Richards was hotly debated in Congress in January. After more than the usual wrangling, threats of a filibuster, and contradictory tweets from President Donald Trump, lawmakers ultimately voted to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Section 702 allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct warrantless surveillance of foreign intelligence targets.

The NSA says that it needs Section 702 cyberspy power to target foreign terrorists and thwart their plans. Opponents retort that Section 702 endangers privacy because it allows too many U.S. citizens and residents to be incidentally swept up in the NSA dragnet. In Congress, most Republicans supported reauthorizing 702, while the House Freedom Caucus, civil-liberties groups, and many Democrats opposed it.

This push and pull between security and privacy is at the crux of Richards’s work at the NSA. She became the agency’s first director of civil liberties and privacy in 2014, soon after Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed that the NSA collected and stored massive amounts of U.S. citizens’ telephone and internet data. She was tasked with bringing privacy rights to the forefront—to promote transparency and accountability at an agency where secrecy is paramount. The job calls on Richards’s ability to thrive in gray areas. “I most enjoy when we’re thinking, ‘Should there be one more ounce of privacy or one more ounce of national security, or is there some technology solution that gives us both of those?’” she says. “I live in the edge-case spaces.”

Richards says she learned to embrace complexity at UMass. An honors-program student, she grew up in San Francisco and came to Amherst to play tuba with the Minuteman Marching Band and major in political science. She studied abroad in England, interned at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, Germany, and wrote her thesis on the fall of the Berlin Wall. She received her master’s degree in international trade from George Washington University and became a privacy expert by accident through an internship with the Department of Commerce, where she found working on data protection “exciting in the nerdiest way possible.” She next worked for the Department of Homeland Security before bringing her deep knowledge of privacy laws and procedures to the NSA.

Better to have this conversation out in the open than to have everyone imagine what’s going on in a dark corner of the NSA.

Rebecca Richards ’94

Smart, dedicated, and forthright, if anyone could reassure Americans that the government has procedures in place to safeguard our civil liberties, it would be Richards. When she visited UMass Amherst for three days in the fall as an Alumni Association Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar, she said that while she sees “appropriate discomfort” with spy powers like Section 702, her office has concluded that reauthorizing it does not endanger our privacy.

To students in an introductory political science class, she explained: “We are a democracy. To protect our democracy, we have to know what both our allies and enemies are doing. That’s what spying is about. The question is, ‘How do we get the right people without infringing on the privacy of U.S. persons?’”

She went on to detail the NSA’s internal and external checks and balances designed to protect civil liberties. Analysts receive extensive training in privacy, and every analyst has an auditor and is subject to access controls. Externally, multiple entities monitor the spy agency, including Congress, the Department of Justice, and the director of national intelligence. Furthermore, as the Section 702 controversy demonstrated, a privacy-sensitive public and press continuously scrutinize the NSA.

Greater transparency at the agency may also ease public anxiety. Soon after Richards was hired, she took the bold step of describing the NSA’s existing privacy protections on its website. “The NSA had incredible privacy protections,” she says, “but no one knew about it.” Part of her job has been to raise public awareness of these protections.

Richards conceded there will always be skepticism about the clash between civil liberties and spying. “Better to have this conversation out in the open than to have everyone imagine what’s going on in a dark corner of the NSA,” she said. She added that her campus visit gave her the opportunity to hear what worries the public and to remind herself why privacy is important. “If you think everything you do is being watched,” she told UMass students, “we might not think our crazy ideas and ask our crazy questions. We could lose our vibrant economy and civil discussions.”

Illustration by Marc Burckhardt