President Obama Drops His Promise To Take Phone Metadata Away From NSA... But Perhaps That's Fine [Updated]

from the so-much-for-reform dept

Update: After talking to a few people about this, it's beginning to look like we may have overreacted to Reuters overreacting. The Reuters report focused on just one aspect of the proposal -- taking the data out of the NSA and giving it to a "trusted" third party. The problems that almost everyone pointed out at that time was that it's unclear how that "trusted third party" would actually be any safer than the NSA -- and many had assumed that idea was dropped long ago. Instead, everyone -- including the White House -- shifted the focus to just letting the telcos hang onto the data, like they do already, and hand it over when required by law. And the White House still supports that plan. In short, the only thing that was dropped was the bad idea of creating some new third party -- and that's an idea that most had assumed was dropped months ago for being nonsensical. We apologize for being misleading and not digging deep enough to understand the details. Original post below

As you may recall, about a year ago, President Obama gave a speech pledging some fairly weak NSA reforms in response to the Snowden revelations. There were some good things proposed, but he could have gone much further. One specific promise: the NSA would stop hoarding metadata on every phone call. As he said, it was time to "transition away" from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect all those phone calls for the NSA to snoop through. Of course, he left the details up to Congress. And, Congress, in true Congress-like fashion, completely dropped the ball and failed to approve any of the proposed legislative changes that would have ended the metadata collection program.

So, President Obama is giving up. He apparently is breaking his promise to take the metadata away from the NSA:
President Barack Obama's administration has quietly abandoned a proposal it had been considering to put raw U.S. telephone call data collected by the National Security Agency under non-governmental control, several U.S. security officials said....

[....]

The Obama administration has decided, however, that the option of having a private third party collect and retain the telephone metadata is unworkable for both legal and practical reasons. "I think that's accurate for right now," a senior U.S. security official said.
It is neither unworkable for legal nor practical reasons. It's only unworkable because of political reasons in that Congress couldn't get its act together to bar the practice.

Furthermore, if President Obama had ever actually been serious about ending the program, he could have easily done it himself. That's because his administration has to go back to the FISA Court every few months to renew the program -- and he could have simply not had them do so. But, instead, the DOJ has just kept on renewing over and over again since then.

And thus, the NSA gets to keep on collecting all that metadata -- unless the courts magically put a stop to it or Section 215 isn't renewed by Congress in June of this year...

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 3:12am

    This is somewhat good news if you think about it. Instead of the Govt holding it a third, private party would hold all that data. If the Government with all the restrictions supposedly given by the Constitution, the law and even internal procedures abused the data like there was no tomorrow imagine a private entity! Still ti's bad that the collection hasn't stopped at all.

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

    • identicon
      David, 23 Jan 2015 @ 4:54am

      Re:

      No, the whole point was that different private parties already in charge of the data would be handing it out only on explicit request.

      So there would be no party in possession of all the data. Naturally, that approach works best if there are no parties with near-monopoly status. Or any centralized storage. For example, if the government has to ask local offices of a big provider for data on people in their region and there is no central arbitration, then all that warrantless metadata mining becomes infeasible.

      If there are centralized databases, blocking the mining is optimistic.

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

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 8:16am

        Re: Re:

        I see your point and I agree with it but then you'd need to split the data among more players (the local offices was awesome reasoning). However what would stop these private entities from selling your info as we know it happens regularly?

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

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 8:27am

        Re: Re:

        "the whole point was that different private parties already in charge of the data would be handing it out only on explicit request."

        Except that the law would have required those companies to retain more data for a lot longer than they would otherwise have done -- so it's not like they'd just be holding onto data that they would have held onto anyway.

        Also, it doesn't actually matter if they only hand it out on explicit request. The end result is precisely the same as if the NSA were holding it. It's not as if the telecoms would ever tell the government "no" when they receive a request.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 11:36am

          Re: Re: Re:

          If the phone companies have the data and not the NSA, then perhaps they might whistleblow when they suddenly get requests for the phone records of every prominent person of the minority party. That might be one small benefit.

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

          • icon
            John Fenderson (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 12:40pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            It's possible, but it seems rather unlikely. The telecoms have historically bent over backwards to cooperate with governmental agencies. It's in their economic interest to do so, since it makes it easier to get their legislation passed and win governmental licenses and contracts.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 4:35am

    Obama broke a promise?

    Say it isn't so! Of course he could just break out the pen and phone and make it so with his kingly powers but he isn't doing that either.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 4:38am

      Re: Obama broke a promise?

      At least he's consistent with his voting record as a Senator!

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

    • identicon
      Pragmatic, 23 Jan 2015 @ 7:56am

      Re: Obama broke a promise?

      Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. In what way is that fair?

      At least he's consistent: he has always been in favor of mass surveillance, his actions have proved that.

      Let's not confuse his corporate shilling with racist allegations and partisan politics; the Right is no better at dealing with this. They own Congress at the moment. When were they planning to dismantle the surveillance state again? What, never? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked and dismayed.

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 5:15am

    The spineless press strikes again

    Furthermore, if President Obama had ever actually been serious about ending the program, he could have easily done it himself. That's because his administration has to go back to the FISA Court every few months to renew the program -- and he could have simply not had them do so. But, instead, the DOJ has just kept on renewing over and over again since then.

    I'd love it if someone actually called him on that one, pointing out that despite his claims about it just not being feasible, he could have easily had the program shut down on his own if he so chose.

    But of course, even the parts of the press unfriendly to him would never point this out, because while they may disagree on a few minor things, both parties are firmly in favor of screwing the public, and neither has any interest in weakening the government's ability to do so.

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

  • identicon
    David, 23 Jan 2015 @ 5:26am

    Obama and promises

    Pretty much the only promise he kept was to implement Massachusett's "Romneycare" nation-wide.

    Does anybody have an idea why he was running as a Democratic candidate in the first place?

    Oh right. He's black. Anything else?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 7:52am

      Re: Obama and promises

      ...the only promise he kept was to implement Massachusett's "Romneycare" nation-wide...


      And what we now have is mutated from 'Romneycare'. At least that was an honest effort to rein in the already highly inflated prices of health care. 'Obamacare' may have had the same noble intentions but what came out is anything but.

      A lot of people are about to get their eyes opened when they do their taxes in the next few months!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 5:37am

    Two words

    Delaying tactic.

    Gently assure the citizens in a time when this issue has the public's attention. Now that Snowden no longer makes headlines, any remaining outrage can be muffled and contained.

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

  • icon
    jilocasin (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 6:20am

    He never planed to stop, just 'reorganize'

    Obama apparently never intended to _end_ the program (big surprise there, I know).

    He didn't say that the government should _stop_ unconstitutionally collecting and storing data on everyone, _just_ that he would have someone _else_ (not the government) hold on to the data.

    In other words, it wasn't going to remove the cameras from everyone's bathrooms and bedrooms, he was just proposing that instead of all the tapes (are tapes too archaic?) sitting in a room (warehouse) at the NSA, they would store them at UStore (imaginary storage place) personal warehouse and storage facility.

    Since Congress won't agree to that, well he'll just _have_ to let the NSA keep them.

    I mean it's not _his_ fault Congress couldn't make a decision. Right?.......?....

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

  • identicon
    AJ, 23 Jan 2015 @ 6:25am

    All of them are dirty. Clinton's, Bush's, Obama's, all of them. You can argue for one side or the other, but in the end, they are all the same. IMHO, the only way you are ever going to improve the system is to somehow remove the personal gain/money. As long as they can benefit themselves and/or each other, they will continue to be dirty.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 8:28am

      Re:

      the money is not the problem. never was.

      it is A problem, but not THE problem.

      If you want to know where the problem is at, please visit the mirror to find out.

      They get elected in repeatedly despite lying repeatedly. This is a problem with the electorate and its ignorance which is only being swelled by illegals that came from shitty nations where they have already been conditioned for serfdom. Perfect new pets if you ask me.

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

      • identicon
        AJ, 23 Jan 2015 @ 8:52am

        Re: Re:

        "it is A problem, but not THE problem.

        If you want to know where the problem is at, please visit the mirror to find out."

        Going to have to disagree with you there.

        I'm involved; I vote, I write my representatives, I go to the town halls, and I participate with discussions. I am not the problem, the people that sit on their ass and ride the system like a rented mule, voting for the person that's going to dig the deepest into my pockets for their free money.... THEY are the problem, and it seems that the more I do to help them, the deeper into my pockets they want to go.

        No sir. The money is the problem. You get that out of the equation, then their is no motivation. You can suggest the problem is power, but in the end, money is power. All of it can be linked, in way way or the other, back to the almighty dollar.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 9:06am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "the people that sit on their ass and ride the system like a rented mule, voting for the person that's going to dig the deepest into my pockets for their free money.... THEY are the problem"

          Interesting. Let me ask you this: those people that ride the system like a mule, are they the product of a system that allows them to do so?

          If yes, how would you change the system in order to turn these people into productive members of society.

          If no, what do you propose we do in order to turn them into productive members of society.

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

          • identicon
            AJ, 23 Jan 2015 @ 1:01pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            "Interesting. Let me ask you this: those people that ride the system like a mule, are they the product of a system that allows them to do so?"

            That's a very good question.

            Unfortunately yes. They are a product of a system that allows them to do so. By allowing the leaches to ride the system, we are taking resources away from the people that truly need it. The handicapped, disabled, victims of horrible crimes.. there are needy people out there that need our help because they are unable to help themselves.. notice I said unable.. IMHO that is where the line should be drawn. If you are unable to work, I get that. If you are unable to FIND work, or are unskilled and cannot perform work. Temporary help and/or training to get you on your feet.. not a permanent ride on the welfare train....

            I employed people, some of these people ask for less hours so they don't lose their free benefits, benefits that are given on the backs of others that produce. They would rather work less and keep their free benefits than work more and earn the money for themselves.. we are incentivising lazyness. I know it's not exactly fair, life isn't fair, I'll help them up.. but they need to stand on their own.

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

  • icon
    Seegras (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 7:10am

    Stopping this?

    Dunno. Maybe the oppressed people of the Fascist States of America need help to free them from their Junta?

    Well, maybe they don't want to be free. They're content to have their government to spout their orwellian nonsense about "Freedom" around the world, while imprisoning their own, hunting journalists and having been always at war against "the Terrorists".

    It's not like they didn't vote these guys in (well, so did germany in 1933), even when it was crystal clear that Obama neither stood for "transparency", nor for "freedom", and not even for "human rights", unlike the first time, when there was some kind of hope things would change. Well they did, for the worse. Obama took up where Bush Jr. left off and turned the noose tighter. A bit more assassination here, some more torture there, a few more whistleblowers condemned, some more "trade agreements" to fill the coffers of some cronies, a lot more secrecy all over, and of course, building up Bushs illegal surveillance of the people.

    I don't think Obama even realizes that what he's doing is completely fascist and totalitarian (as opposed to Cheney for instance, who probably knows very well that he WANTS a totalitarian state) and I can't comprehend how he turned into this.

    In any case, I think it's futile to hope for an invasion force that will liberate the USA ;). Not the least because the ideas of the US government have either been exported, or popped up by itself, in most countries around the world.

    Oh, and terrorism is of course no solution at all. Terrorism works only ever in one way: Towards totalitarianism. Even if the terrorists think they're working for "freedom"; the backlash will inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Of course, Christians or Muslims wanting to enact their own totalitarian theocracy don't care. The only ones that always loose are those that value liberty.

    In the 80ies, heads were rolling when it turned out my government spied on thousands of people indiscriminatingly. Today, laws get enacted to allow them to do just that, and nothing happens to those that illegally spied on us the last decade. And this is in one of the (still) best democracies of the world (The US democracy has long been surpassed by the way, at least since 1848, and since the late 1990ies, I'm suspecting it's not a democracy but a plutocracy).

    I think it's going to get bad, really bad, Nazi-Germany bad the next decades, all over the world.

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

  • identicon
    Reality bites, 23 Jan 2015 @ 7:11am

    Puppets never keep promises, only idiots expect them too.

    Oscumba the puppet clown can't wipe his nose without the handlers helping, just like bush and the last 50 puppets.

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

  • identicon
    Just Another Anonymous Troll, 23 Jan 2015 @ 7:44am

    How to be fixing the civil rights, in 5 easy step!

    It's very easy to take phone metadata away from the NSA.
    Step 1: Place copious amounts of C4 at strategic points of the NSA data center.
    Step 2: Push the detonator.
    Step 3: Get a damn warrant to get only data from a suspect person from their phone company.
    Step 4: ???
    Step 5: Profit.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 7:52am

    I knew the executive branch wouldn't give up their 5 year metadata retention policy. The policy isn't good at stopping terrorism, but it was never about that anyways. Terrorism is just the pretext for such policies. The real reason such policies exist is for the mass surveillance of innocents. In order to maintain their grip on power and track down the sources of leaked information.

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

  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 8:00am

    I'm pretty neutral to this

    I didn't like the idea of having private third parties hold this data. In my view, doing so solves little of the underlying problem and expands the privacy problem through the mere fact that private companies would then be holding much more data about us than they already do.

    So, all in all, meh.

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

    • icon
      JP Jones (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 10:12am

      Re: I'm pretty neutral to this

      My understanding is "private third parties" are the ones that currently hold it. In other words, Google currently holds all your Google data, and your phone company holds all your phone records. It's pretty much impossible to prevent this as these records are required for their business.

      I didn't think having the information condensed into some third party for the NSA to access was ever on the table. Could be wrong, but I can't find it.

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

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 10:25am

        Re: Re: I'm pretty neutral to this

        "It's pretty much impossible to prevent this as these records are required for their business."

        The law would have required private business to retain more information for a longer period of time than they currently do. In other words, it would have required them to collect and store data beyond what they need to operate their businesses.

        In this sense, the only real change would have been what servers the data was stored on. It would not have changed the type or amount of data at all -- so effectively, nothing would have changed except that even more people people would be able to access the information than before.

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

  • icon
    Tweak (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 9:13am

    The only way that the Empire gives up its accumulated powers is through its destruction. The only way we get our rights back is by taking them back at gunpoint, and that's only if it doesn't end up creating an even worse fascist state in the aftermath.

    Voting doesn't work. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
    Contacting your "representatives" doesn't work, unless you have a mighty checkbook.
    Attending meetings, town halls and debates doesn't work. Shout all you like.
    Protesting doesn't work, unless you enjoy sitting in a jail cell.
    It changes nothing because the bureaucratic oligarchs don't care and they don't have to.

    Things will get ugly here and this is only the tip of the iceberg. People will only begin to care when their food and electricity begins to run out.

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

  • icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 10:05am

    Update

    Hey guys. After talking to more people about this I've updated the post and noted that it's not as crazy as it first appeared. It appears the WH is really only dropping a bad idea that many had assumed to be dropped long ago -- and is instead focusing on a better plan to get the data out of the NSA (leaving it with the original companies).

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 11:00am

    Um, and this is shocking?

    Obama has consistently done the opposite of what he says.

    Paraphrasing....
    "I'm gonna close gitmo" its still open
    "I'm gonna stop NSA metadata collection" its still happening
    "I'm gonna make health insurance affordable for all Americans" its now more expensive for many people
    "I'm gonna protect Americans" He hunts them down with predator drones

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

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 4:53pm

    every time he opens his mouth you hear what you want to hear.

    people should know better than trust someone that only tells them what they want to hear.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2015 @ 9:34pm

    So the end result is we still have section 215 mandating companies turn over customer data to the government. Plus, we have the government mandating telcom companies to seize and retain 5 years worth of real time metadata on customers (calls, texts, real-time location records, and web browsing history).

    5 years worth of metadata has absolutely nothing to do with monthly billing or the day-to-day operations of running a telcom company. It has everything to do with suspicionless and untargeted mass surveillance.

    So we're right back at square one. Everyone's mass surveiled and nothing has changed. Except for the fact Snowden let everyone in on the secret, so people are now aware they're being mass surveiled.

    I suppose that's better than nothing. Now people are attempting to end-to-end encrypt their communications. In an attempt to regain their privacy. Of course now governments around the world are crying about end-to-end encryption, and want to mandate backdoors with universal golden keys that can open any lock.

    Moral of the story. We'll have to pry mass surveillance from government's cold dead hands. They'll never freely give up such authoritarian powers voluntarily.

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


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.