The US National Security Agency (NSA), the world's premier codebreaking and eavesdropping organisation, has strongly denied that it is setting up monitoring equipment on American privately-owned networks deemed to be critical national infrastructure.
A story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, which we reported on here, said that defence contractor Raytheon was working on a classified technology project dubbed "Perfect Citizen" for the NSA, which would see infrastructure networks - for instance power, telecoms or transport systems - "instrumented" in order to detect possible attempts to attack them.
This naturally raised some worries in a domestic-surveillance context, with an internal Raytheon email quoted by the WSJ as stating that "Perfect Citizen is Big Brother". Naturally, a lot of information residing in infrastructure systems would be a bonanza for those interested in massive automated monitoring of the US population.
We contacted both the NSA and Raytheon for comment. Raytheon was unable to say anything, but NSA spokesperson Judith Emmel answered by email. It appears that Perfect Citizen does exist, but according to the NSA it is not as menacing as the WSJ report made it seem.
"PERFECT CITIZEN is purely a vulnerabilities-assessment and capabilities-development contract," wrote Emmel. "This is a research and engineering effort. There is no monitoring activity involved, and no sensors are employed in this endeavor. Specifically, it does not involve the monitoring of communications or the placement of sensors on utility company systems."
According to Emmel, the PERFECT CITIZEN tech will merely "provide a set of technical solutions that help the National Security Agency better understand the threats".
As for seeking to spy on US citizens by means of examining their power or phone usage, tracking them through transport systems etc, the NSA would simply never think of such a thing.
"Any suggestions that there are illegal or invasive domestic activities associated with this contracted effort are simply not true. We strictly adhere to both the spirit and the letter of US laws and regulations," insisted Emmel.
Which reads rather as though the NSA is not yet actually "instrumenting" any utility companies, but is developing the necessary tools to do so if required.
The agency would contend that this is purely in order to safeguard vital computer systems in charge of critical things such as power grids, railway signals, traffic lights etc. Many such systems were designed in the days before widespread networks with little thought for security, but are nowadays accessible via the internet.
Without some local access, it would be hard for the NSA even to know what probes into such systems may be underway: packets might reach a given portal by any route across the wider internet. The agency does have a legitimate interest here, being part of the US military and thus expected to defend American networks from enemies both foreign and domestic.
Unfortunately such local access to utility networks would seem to offer scope for disturbing "mission creep" once in place.
And people are bound to ask just why it was thought necessary to keep PERFECT CITIZEN secret. We've asked the NSA's Emmel, in fact: we'll let you know as and when we hear back. ®