Policy

The President Will Replace NSA Mass Surveillance With ... Something


Obama speaking about the National Security Agency from the U.S. Justice Department

Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Obama speaking about the National Security Agency from the U.S. Justice Department

President Obama says he will end the U.S. government’s practice of mass phone surveillance, “as it currently exists,” and eventually get it out of the business of mass data collection and storage. One question remains following the speech delivered Friday morning at the White House: How will he do this? It’s clear that even the president hasn’t figured this out.

As a mea culpa for the government’s overzealous surveillance techniques, the president’s speech was woefully lacking. He hit all the fuzzy themes guaranteed to drive critics batty. He offered a broad assurance that the National Security Agency isn’t interested in “ordinary folks” while also saying that NSA agents are just like the rest of us. He reminded the audience that private companies track online activity for advertising, and he insisted that collecting metadata is less threatening than listening to the content of calls. He even started his speech by saying that American intelligence collection has a long and noble history, going all the way back to Paul Revere surveilling the movements of the redcoats. (Ironically, the example of Revere undermines Obama’s assurances that collecting metadata isn’t that big a deal.)

The speech didn’t sit well with privacy advocates, who criticized its tone and its content. “In a speech about reform, the president announced a policy of preservation,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, in a statement. “What it comes down to is this: The President wants data about every single American to be collected and retained. He wants to normalize practices that sparked mass outrage just last summer. We do not.” Segal’s group and others are pushing ahead with a day of protest over the federal government’s surveillance practices.

The president did propose some changes. He foresees a transition period during which requests to access data will have to go through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This might not satisfy those who remember the agency’s history of dishonesty in that court, although Obama has asked Congress to create an independent panel of advocates that would present the court with an outsiders’ perspective on cases that are “significant”. Obama also said that targets will have to be two steps removed from a terrorist organization; they currently can be three steps removed.

The intelligence community and the attorney general have about three months to devise an alternative to the government’s current practice of compiling a database of this metadata. The president would then take that proposal to Congress as needed. This is where any heavy lifting would happen.

The president’s reform panel suggested that phone companies themselves hold onto the data. If that isn’t workable, a new non-governmental entity could be created to maintain it. Both approaches present challenges, Obama acknowledged, especially if they result in asking private organizations to collect or retain data in new ways. “If that’s the way they’re going, they’re going to have a battle on their hands,” says Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

The president also detailed ways to increase transparency and attempted to tamp down concerns that the U.S. government doesn’t value the privacy of people living in other countries. Interestingly, Obama was silent on another topic that has caused widespread outrage in the security community, utterly ignoring the NSA’s attempts to force private companies to weaken their encryption practices to give the agency easier access.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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