During a press conference at the White House on Friday, President Obama proposed reforms to the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program. In the speech, to which the New York Times provides the full text, Obama discussed the nature of modern surveillance and the hardships associated with balancing privacy and security.
The President begins by saying that the capabilities of modern computers allow U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor and store massive amounts of information related to terrorist threats. This inherently gives such agencies the power to monitor digital communications between ordinary American citizens, and the President acknowledges that such power may give citizens pause.
“At a time when more and more of our lives are digital,” he says, “that prospect is disquieting for all of us.”
Furthermore, the President says that this power can lead to abuse, and it leads people to discuss how surveillance technology should be used in an age where it seems that no corner is out of reach. Secrecy, he says, is in the interest of intelligence agencies, but laws that provide oversight and auditing of agencies must keep pace with available technology.
To that point, the President laid out several recommendations in his speech. First, he said he approved a new presidential directive that “will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities.” Second, he said the government will begin to provide greater transparency into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), including the declassification of FISC opinions and an allowance for Congress to create a panel of outside-government advocates that will provide an alternative voice to the FISC.
The President also said the government “will provide additional protections for activities conducted under Section 702, which allows the government to intercept the communications of foreign targets overseas who have information that’s important for our national security.” This, he said, will manifest in greater limitations on the government’s ability to use communication records between American and foreign citizens in criminal cases.
Obama then said he will create further restrictions on, and create more transparency about, the use of National Security Letters. Such letters are often used to require individuals or organizations to provide the government with information but with the restriction that the individual or organization may not disclose to outside entities the existence or details of the Letter in question.
Lastly, the President addressed the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records. He says that Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the NSA to collect and store phone record metadata, such as the time and length of a call. He said this program is not meant to analyze the calls of ordinary American citizens, but he did acknowledge the need for reform.
Obama said he will recommend that the bulk metadata program be transitioned out of the government’s hands. He said he was advised that multiple third parties could hold metadata that the government could then access, but he said that that situation could lead to a host of further privacy concerns. In any case, he said, the transition will not be simple.
For the time being, the President said he will immediately order that the government pursue only phone calls which are two steps removed — instead of the current three steps — from a known terrorist organization. In addition, he said he will instruct FISC to query the bulk metadata only in the case of a judicial finding or an emergency. Other reforms, he said, may be made following future recommendations from the intelligence community and Attorney General.
The President suggested many steps for change, and indeed many changes will take place. However, as Electronic Frontier Foundation Legal Director Cindy Cohn notes, there is much work to be done. Government agencies can tackle these specified problems more directly, and a host of associated issues will wait on the doorstep as the current issues are being settled.
Image courtesy of nsa.gov via Wikimedia Commons