Computer experts at the secretive National Security Agency are teaming up with the Homeland Security Department in an effort to strengthen the nation’s defenses against cyber attacks.

The partnership unveiled Wednesday raised concerns among civil liberties advocates, who say that safeguards are needed to ensure that the collaboration between the spy agency and Homeland Security does not wind up violating the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

NSA and Homeland Security officials both said they are creating small teams that will work in the other agency’s operations centers, a move designed to help them share lawfully gathered intelligence and provide Homeland Security faster access to the NSA’s broad technical expertise.

The collaboration is a move to help the U.S. guard against the growing threat of cyber attacks against government and private computer networks. U.S. government and private networks are increasingly under attack by hackers and other cyber criminals.

The officials said the plan will include increased oversight by legal and privacy professionals to insure that individuals rights are protected. But privacy officials said the new relationship must be watched closely, including by outside watchdogs.

“The National Security Agency has traditionally pulled computer security into the realm of secrecy and surveillance,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “There is a great need to insure that the NSA’s tools for surveillance are not directed at the American public.”

Cyber security expert James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there was an initial reluctance within DHS and on Capitol Hill to move forward with the plan, with some suggesting it would be better to build the cyber expertise within Homeland Security.

Source: Lolita C. Baldor for the Associated Press.

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