President Obama Surpasses Exceptionally Low Expectations On NSA Reforms, But Reforms Are Still Very Weak

from the you're-no-paul-revere dept

As expected, President Obama this morning gave his speech concerning his plans to "reform" the NSA. Similar to the original task force report, for which the White House first leaked claims that the recommended changes would be "cosmetic"... and then presented something a little more powerful, to try to win people over by beating low expectations. The same is true here. Earlier this week, the White House leaked out reports of cosmetic changes with little in the way of real reforms. Then, this morning, the President announced more significant reforms than expected. He did, in fact, propose a few major changes. You can read the full speech here. Among the things he announced:
  • A judge will have to approve each query for data on the metadata collection from Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
  • The "three hop" dragnet will be reduced down to two hops. That does, in fact, limit how far the NSA can search by quite a bit. That last hop is quite big.
  • The NSA should no longer hold all of the data, meaning that the telcos will be expected to hold onto it (though, he leaves it up to Congress and the DOJ to figure out how to do this). He calls this a "transition" away from the Section 215 program, but that's hardly clear.
  • National Security Letters (NSLs) will no longer have an unlimited gag order on them. The Attorney General will need to set up guidelines for a time in which gag orders expire, with the possibility of extending them for investigations that are still ongoing.
  • Companies will be given slightly more freedom to reveal data on the NSLs they get (though I don't think he indicated the same thing for Section 702 orders.... which is a big concern).
  • The Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence will review annually FISC rulings to figure out what can be declassified.
  • He promises to "work with Congress" to look at changes to the FISA court
  • He is adding some very limited restrictions on spying on people overseas. It should only be used for actual counterterrorism/crime/military/real national security efforts.
  • A State Department official will be in charge of handling "diplomacy issues" related to these changes on foreign spying.
  • An effort will be started with technologists and privacy experts over how to handle "big data and privacy" in both the public and private sectors.
That is... he is ordering changes that go slightly beyond the expectations his own staffers leaked earlier this week... but stopping way short of actually fixing the problems. And, even with his changes, he leaves many of the details to Congress and the DOJ to sort out for themselves, which is not particularly encouraging, considering how both have acted for decades when it comes to surveillance.

Bulk data collection will still continue in some form, despite the fact that it appears that bulk data collection is rarely useful, compared to targeted surveillance. There will be slightly more oversight, despite the fact that oversight in the past has failed. There will be no effort to stop trying to compromise the technology of American (and foreign) companies leading to serious questions about our tech industry's ability to do business overseas (and at home).

Yes, this is better than it could have been, but only by a tiny degree. The President claims that he is open to further changes, but the fact that he is clearly resisting the major overhauls that are clearly needed does not provide any confidence that he's actually moving towards fixing the overreaching surveillance state. The speech sounded lofty, and talked about American ideals and the necessity of protecting civil liberties, but only moved the ball a very slight way towards getting there. Further, it leaves open plenty of ways for the intelligence community to claw back whatever he's making them "give up" through other means.

Update: Embedded the Presidential Directive that he signed today to put all of what he discussed into effect. You can read it below.

Filed Under: barack obama, nsa, reforms, section 215, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2014 @ 5:56pm

    Re: Re: Room full of Monkeys

    Holder expects you to obey the law instead.

    Holder himself is a criminal (Fast and Furious gun walking).

    The whole thing is not going to end right for everybody.

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