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Secret US cybersecurity program to protect power grid confirmed

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While most might agree the program's national-security goal is laudable, the question of just how to go about protecting the power grid has been a controversial topic in Congress and among Internet privacy advocates leery of government control of the Internet. Of particular concern among such advocates is shielding privately owned corporate computer networks deemed to be "critical infrastructure" from potentially intrusive digital monitoring.

Citing unnamed sources, the original Wall Street Journal article said that the program did indeed involve placing sensors that can detect illegitimate cyberactivity. But the new documents don't clarify this point. Deploying such sensors would be especially sensitive since the NSA is an arm of the Pentagon charged with collecting and analyzing foreign communications and defending US government communications and computer networks – not domestic spying.

"This is a research and engineering effort. There is no monitoring activity involved, and no sensors are employed in this endeavor," the 2010 statement says.

Indeed, the NSA is not authorized to intercept the communications of US citizens unless specifically authorized to do so by a special court acting under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Yet The New York Times reported in 2005 that the NSA had been involved in conducting wiretaps of calls made by US citizens to persons overseas without first getting a warrant from the court.

"Any suggestions that there are illegal or invasive domestic activities associated with this [Perfect Citizen] contracted effort are simply not true," says the NSA's 2010 statement. "We strictly adhere to both the spirit and the letter of US laws and regulations."

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