Obama Plans Cosmetic Surveillance Changes After All, Will Set Up Pretend Fight Over NSLs
from the theatrical-reforms dept
Leaks coming out of the Obama administration suggest that the President is preparing mostly cosmetic changes to the intelligence community, following the recommendations from the intelligence task force — which were much stronger than many expected. The reports suggest things like putting a public advocate to represent the public’s views in certain cases before the FISC. This has been talked about for a while, and was the main concession plenty of people had been expecting anyway. That’s hardly anything big.
The article talks about two other potential reforms. The first is shifting the holding of phone call metadata from the NSA to the phone companies, allowing the NSA to still search through it after getting a court order. While this may be a marginal improvement, it still has tremendous problems. It will almost certainly come with some sort of data retention law — something that the feds have wanted for ages, and which civil liberties activists have been fighting against for years. Companies shouldn’t be required to hang on to data they don’t need, especially if getting rid of it can better protect their users’ privacy. Furthermore, while not letting the NSA hang onto the data is a good thing, there is a reasonable concern that if the telcos are hanging onto the data themselves, that they, too, might do bad things with it, with little to no oversight.
However, most of the article from the LA Times focuses on National Security Letter (NSL) reform. We’ve written about those for years. NSLs are the way that the FBI can demand information from companies without any judicial review at all and, even more insane, with a complete gag order that prevents the recipient from telling anyone (including, at times, your lawyer). The FBI has an incredibly long history of “serious misuse” of NSLs, and has shown little to no interest in fixing the process. Nearly a year ago, a court actually ruled them unconstitutional, but there’s an ongoing appeals process that will take quite a bit of time.
However, as the article notes, the DOJ/FBI and other surveillance maximalists are all horrified by the idea that Obama might actually require judicial approval of NSLs, for all but “emergency” situations. What this sounds like is that the President may suggest something along those lines, there will be a well coordinated press attack from surveillance hawks freaking out about the danger this puts us all in… and then he’ll back down on that one point. And we’ll be left with… basically nothing, but the President will go around insisting that he reformed the intelligence community, while everything more or less stays the same.