Surprise: White House's Intelligence Review Task Force Suggestions Much More Than Just Cosmetic

from the wasn't-expecting-that dept

Given the earlier reports suggesting that the "independent" task force set up to review the NSA's activities had come back with a list of suggestions for changes that were mostly cosmetic, rather than substantive, it was a bit of a surprise to see the White House come out today to say that those earlier reports were incorrect and that they were releasing the report in full today (way ahead of schedule). And, now the report is out. After giving it a single read (300+ pages), it is a lot more substantial than many of us expected -- so much so that even the NSA's biggest apologists are "shocked" at how "awkward" it must be for the White House to claim to set up an independent task force, and then have it come back with recommendations that are quite different than what the White House itself has been proposing. It's as if the NSA's apologists assumed this was long in the bag, and that the task force itself was always a joke. Turns out that's not the case.

That's not to say this is perfect. There are significant areas where it seems the recommendations could and should go much further. But it does argue for reining in significant amounts of surveillance, providing much greater oversight, protecting non-US persons' privacy as well as US persons, and a variety of other very real changes. It also (as Judge Leon did on Monday) says that there's no real evidence the bulk collection of metadata was useful in any real way... but, oddly, then allows the program to continue, but in a different manner: having the telcos retain the data in case it's later needed (along with relevant court approvals) rather than just keeping the whole database to troll through. There are all sorts of problems with mandatory data retention as well, but we'll talk about that eventually.

It recommends putting significant restrictions on the ability of the FISA court to force companies to disclose private information, and also includes restrictions on the regularly abused "national security letters" process, which the FBI frequently uses to get information without a warrant. It supports much greater transparency about the programs, including allowing companies to reveal details of the number of requests they received for information. And, as mentioned above, they don't just stop at protecting the privacy of US persons, but non-US as well, including that any spying on non-US persons needs to have a direct national security purpose, and cannot be based on political or religious views alone. It also recommends against revealing information about non-US persons, such as the reported plans to leak the porn viewing habits of certain non-terrorists with views with which the American government disagreed.

The report clearly notes the drift by the NSA away from its core mission of national security, and suggests that various actions need to get back to having a specific national security reason. It also argues for splitting up parts of the NSA by designating the NSA itself as only covering foreign intelligence, moving its "Information Assurance Directorate" and (as we'd discussed last week) finally separating US Cyber Command from the NSA (something the White House has apparently already rejected). The report highlights the need for greater privacy assurances, including reconstituting the Civil Liberties Oversight Board into the Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board -- and granting it much more power for oversight, while also placing a Special Assistant to the President for Privacy in the executive branch. As many had expected, it also recommends making the FISA court a more adversarial process (something the White House has suggested it may be open to).

The report also recommends that the NSA be blocked from trying to undermine or weaken encryption standards, and actually says that the White House should support greater use of encryption across the board.

There are recommendations to better lock down information within the intelligence community to prevent another Snowden from walking off with documents... but also more avenues for whistleblowers, including having them go to that newly constituted privacy board.

It's final recommendation is one that's most telling, and one of the issues that's most confused me throughout this process. It suggests that the government start actually doing a "cost-benefit" analysis of the various security efforts it engages in. As we've noted, the incredible thing about the revealed programs is that they provided very little benefit, but the costs were astounding, both in managing the programs themselves, but, more importantly, in the impact economically and diplomatically of having those programs revealed.

Now, this report is just a set of proposals, which the White House can reject. In fact, it's likely that many will be rejected or ignored. But, to actually have this review board -- which many expected to be nothing more than yet another rubber stamp -- issue something this detailed, comprehensive... and which really does recommend some very real changes, is a pleasant surprise.

Your move, Mr. President.

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  • identicon
    Trevor, 18 Dec 2013 @ 3:07pm


    Wouldn't it be better to ban data retention completely, and make the NSA obtain a warrant, and then have to monitor it in real time? (Or only retain data if there is a specific warrant).

    Or is that just wishful thinking?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Dec 2013 @ 3:42pm

      Re: Question

      my thoughts exactly ..i want my data to not exist period and what data i do have out there i want to maintain control over

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Dec 2013 @ 4:30pm

      Re: Question

      It would be. Rush Holt's Surveillance State Repeal Act proposes many of the things you said and more. It's the best bill so far on this. USA Freedom Act comes in second, but it seems it's the more popular one right now and with more chances of passing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    rorybaust (profile), 18 Dec 2013 @ 3:22pm

    where are all the black bars

    So this report basically says that what Snowden said is true , which in itself is quite interesting since I don't think the US government have actually accepted that fact yet and admits that he was a whistle blower in a roundabout way amazing that the government has to concede that they abused their power so kudos to the US for releasing this or were they so worried about future leaks and that it would get out anyway.

    what I don't understand is where are all the black bars

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    out_of_the_blue, 18 Dec 2013 @ 3:28pm

    How can "suggestions" be EVEN "cosmetic", Mike? NOTHING HAS HAPPENED.

    More PR dutifully passed along by Mimeograph Mike. If there's a press release that helps The Establishment or his precious Google, Mike is all over it.

    Meanwhile, Mike ignores vastly more important REAL ACTIONS in the "tech" not "political" field:

    Reddit bans comments from global warming skeptics

    Hell, even this from Cheezburger is more important than "suggestions" from a known bunch of criminals (actually, Mike doesn't admit that they are criminals, thinks he's in the ruling class, wouldn't so label his pals):

    Miley Cyrus Totally Looks Like Dead Orc

    Limited government means limiting The Rich who own it.


    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      DP, 19 Dec 2013 @ 11:55am

      Re: How can "suggestions" be EVEN "cosmetic", Mike? NOTHING HAS HAPPENED.

      Hmm. I really have not got as much as a solitary clue as to what OOTB is rambling on about, pretty much most of the time. A complete waste of space and data use. Can someone be employed to translate his inane and disparate wafflings into plain English? On second thoughts, that would also be a total waste of facilities as his contributions to any discussion are usually 100% worthless.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 19 Dec 2013 @ 1:48pm

        Re: Re: How can "suggestions" be EVEN "cosmetic", Mike? NOTHING HAS HAPPENED.

        Sure, I can help. The majority of Blues comments can be adequately summed up as "I hate Techdirt and everyone who reads it."

        That's not hyperbole. It's actually rather interesting. Blue has such a profound need to disagree with everything here that he will contradict his own positions -- even ones he took a few minutes earlier -- just so he can argue against whatever was said -- even if it agreed with his position a few minutes earlier.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Dec 2013 @ 3:34pm

    There is no Google in the article ootb. Have another report vote.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 18 Dec 2013 @ 3:34pm

    Presidents Move

    Mr. President: Pass

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ShellMG (profile), 18 Dec 2013 @ 3:58pm

    Ask Mr. Simpson and Mr. Bowles about spending endless hours on behalf of a presidential request, only to have it ridiculed and thrown aside.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Who Cares (profile), 18 Dec 2013 @ 9:40pm


    What they suggest is the way that it is handled in the EU.
    In the EU there is a limit on how long a telco must store the data, between 6 months and a year.
    And neither privacy advocates nor the telcos are happy with it. The one due to privacy concerns, the other due to costs associated with storing all the data.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 19 Dec 2013 @ 12:23am

    All of this will not help.

    The NSA has the data processing facilities and the funding and the taps and the technical means to screw the whole world's privacy over, and as long as they get to keep all that, they will use it for its dedicated purpose.

    Without a windfall of whistleblowers and the proposal contains suggestions how to curb them, and look what happened to Snowden already, a rather smart guy what reaches the public will be even less than before and will be celebrated as success.

    Without any attempt to defund and deconstruct the facilities for global mass surveillance, they will be kept running, with a few occasional wrist slaps here and there for placating the people who are to be kept dumber than before.

    That's the whole point of "reducing unauthorized disclosures". If they planned on keeping the laws, they would not need that. And if they planned on keeping the laws, they would propose ways to deal with funding and facilities that are clearly against the law.

    This is just a bit of theatre, and it will be strategically weakened by the government, to boot.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 19 Dec 2013 @ 2:31am

    Color me shocked. I expected a resonating silent report (as in a report that has lots of fancy words but says nothing useful). Will be interesting to see the next move. I think most of us expect nothing to happen.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Dec 2013 @ 5:02am

    The problem with a cost benefit analysis is that when they find it costs too much they will not disband it, rather look for ways to leverage this massively invasive dataset for more "benefits".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    countermeasures1 (profile), 19 Dec 2013 @ 5:35am

    Intelligence Task Force, etc.

    From Putin's press conference re Snowden: "The former KGB agent said people should remember that espionage was necessary for security reasons: "However much our American friends are criticised, I think their work was mainly directed at fighting terrorism. Of course, this has its negative aspects and on a political level the appetites of the special services need to be controlled. But overall, you have to understand that it is necessary."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Alt0, 19 Dec 2013 @ 8:32am

    Damage Control....
    Decentralize Data Centers by removing to Telcos
    (now that the world knows what they are they are a target)
    That should save us a TON of what to do with it?

    Over-Site will now have a longer list of names that will all still look the other way and deny. (For a larger wage)

    No longer allowed to "Weaken Encryption Standards"
    OK excuse me, but when were they ever "Allowed" to do that?

    Cost Analysis: Hey! it sure costs a lot to spy on everyone in the world. It seems that we are vastly underpaid. Final cost analysis suggest we all get a significant raise.

    Protect Non-American Rights. Is that correct? Will the government actually practice the same bill of goods they export to the rest of the world concerning freedom?

    Not very likely

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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