With U.S. President Barack Obama announcing high-level changes to government surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA) earlier today, it seems as though much has been promised – but we have yet to see if the Obama administration will deliver.
In December 2013, an independent NSA review panel made a list of recommendations for the White House, asking it to protect citizens’ privacy. Now, we’re seeing the first fruits of those recommendations.
While the changes are slated to restrict how the NSA can use the data it collects on U.S. citizens, many of them are geared towards the NSA’s collection of citizens’ phone records, with less of a focus on messages and calls exchanged over the Internet, the Verge is reporting. The Verge’s staff decided to grade the proposed changes – overall, staff members gave the reforms a C, saying these reforms just aren’t enough.
For the full text of Obama’s speech, head on over here.
1. Reforming the NSA’s bulk phone record collection
Instead of allowing the government to keep a database of the phone records of U.S. citizens, it’s suggesting it wants to move those records into the hands of a third-party. The idea is that NSA analysts will only be able to check records once they get approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the FISA court).
However, the Verge is giving this move a C, saying that moving metadata into the hands of a third party still poses privacy concerns. However, it’s lauding the move to require NSA analysts to make specific requests for metadata, giving that an A.
2. Ending national security letter abuse
It was common enough practice that the NSA would send national security letters, secretly ordering companies like Google and Facebook to hand over user data to the FBI. The president has told Attorney General Eric Holder to “amend” the secrecy around these letters, so Google and Facebook users could be notified and so tech companies could tell the public more about them. However, that doesn’t mean the scope of the letters is being narrowed, the Verge notes.
It’s giving this proposed change a D in terms of judicial oversight, since the FBI handles these letters, not a court. The change is also earning an F for failing to cut down the scope of them, though it does get a B for giving tech companies more of a chance to discuss them.
3. Locking down the NSA email database
Not too much is changing here – essentially, the president defended the NSA’s collection of U.S. citizens’ emails, and it seems as though this program will stay mostly the same. The Verge staff is awarding this change a D for a failure to purge information on U.S. citizens, arguing the data should only be kept if it’s valuable to foreign intelligence.
4. Giving the FISA court teeth
Obama has promised to follow through on a lot of FISA reforms. The big one is the promise the White House will institute a public interest advocate, whose role would include arguing against NSA surveillance demands on behalf of U.S. citizens. That garnered this change an A.
5. Creating external oversight for the NSA
Here’s a place where the NSA review panel and the Obama administration seem to disagree. The review panel suggested creating a Sensitive Activities Office, which would monitor any collection activities and make objections if they were perceived to be too broad. That would be an office under the executive branch of government.
However, Obama has instead opted to leave that to the judicial branch of government – however, even though the Verge gave that an F, it noted that may not be a bad idea as judges may be better equipped for that.
6. Stopping the weakening of encryption standards
In this respect, the Verge staff has given Obama a flat F. It noted that civil liberties advocates and cryptographers alike have been clamouring for change in this area, but Obama hadn’t mentioned this. Nor has the NSA been separated from the U.S. Cyber Command, and the NSA is still the key encryption authority for the government – even after inserting backdoors into code.
7. Ending spying on foreign leaders
When the news leaked that the NSA had been spying on Angela Merkel, the backlash was intense. The president said he has now explicitly told intelligence agencies to stop monitoring friendly foreign leaders. There will also now be a new role for a “coordinator for international diplomacy,” whose job it will be to handle complaints from other heads of state on international surveillance. For this move, Obama gets an A from the Verge.
However, despite some bright spots in Obama’s address, ultimately the Verge slapped his speech with a C. While it’s great the president is targeting phone records, very little was said about emails or Web browsing – and the speech made no mention of PRISM.
“Even the promised progress is only a first step, a seed of reform which could easily perish in a hostile legislature or an unresponsive bureaucracy. The next test will come when intelligence agencies respond to the proposals, and Congress moves forward with existing bills for FISA reform,” the Verge’s staff wrote.
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