Obama unveils NSA reforms: 'Keep calm and carry on spying'

Obama unveils NSA reforms: 'Keep calm and carry on spying'

Summary: The reforms set out by the President will in reality retain the status quo: The NSA will still be allowed to spy, it just won't have unfettered access to that data. By refusing to apologize for the NSA's actions, Obama buckled to a degree in order to appease an angry world stage.

(Image via Twitter)

"I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became President," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech at the Justice Department on Friday.

"What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale."

After months of disclosures by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, Obama revealed on Friday reforms to the federal government’s surveillance machine in efforts to straddle that line.

In the speech, Obama outlined a number of reforms that would overhaul the way the National Security Agency (NSA) collects vast amounts of data on Americans and foreign nationals, including efforts to redress the balance on the world stage after a significant diplomatic backlash over alleged surveillance overreach.

And already there are a few caveats. Not least, the big one: Snowden has more to leak, and the extent of these programs, which date back to 2007 and beyond, may not be as they are today.

A senior White House official speaking to sister-site CBS News' Mark Knoller said the President wants to dance the delicate line between preserving the NSA's surveillance capabilities while addressing "privacy and civil liberties concerns."

But Obama remained on the defensive, reiterating previous claims that the NSA was "not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails."

Obama's comments will likely not appease everyone, considering the conflicting desires of the technology and telecoms industry, intelligence agencies, foreign diplomats and privacy advocates.

In the speech, Obama said the bulk metadata program, which includes the vacuuming up of phone records — though not the contents of the call — will be wound down before March 28 when the secret Washington D.C.-based Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is scheduled to reauthorize the program. 

"The bottom line is that people around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account." — President Obama

The NSA currently gathers this data on a daily basis from phone companies like Verizon, which was implicated in the first Snowden leak, under a Section 215 of the Patriot Act order. That will change, with a yet unknown third-party holding the data.

U.S. intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: counter-intelligence; counter-terrorism; counter-proliferation; cyber-security; force protection for our troops and allies; and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion

Knoller jokingly tweeted before the speech: "If anyone has a big garage and willing to store a trillion gigabytes of phone data, you should let the Government know." 

The irony is that companies like Google, which was implicated in the PRISM scandal, and cloud rival Amazon, have the capacity and capability to store such data, though they likely won't be asked to. Phone companies have already objected to holding this data.

A decision on the third-party data holder is expected by late March.

With the data still being demanded by the NSA — even if it is held by a third-party — any attempt to search the metadata bank will require a preemptive and unique judicial approval, "effective immediately," Obama said, unless it is needed in a "true emergency." 

In theory, this will make the NSA's access to this data not as easy and better regulated, by distancing the gap between the federal government and the vast metadata database.

However, the judicial responsibility will pass once again through the FISC, which has up until June 2013 rejected just 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance requests made by the government in its three-decade long history.

In line with calls from Obama's independent reforms panel and a bevy of privacy advocates, the FISC will also house new so-called "public interest" advocates that would act as a check-and-balance on the court's findings. These members would have to be security cleared. The new panel of advocates would have to be approved by Congress, Obama said. 

As previous reports suggested, Congress will be required to intervene on a number of matters, not least through its own various (and in some cases conflicting) bills.

That said, despite prior claims that "every member of Congress" was briefed on the metadata programs, security expert Bruce Schneier rebuffed the claims on Thursday. Schneier, who has access to the Snowden cache, said in a blog post that he spent an hour in a closed room with six members of Congress because, according to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the NSA was not forthcoming about its activities, and wanted him to explain to them "what the NSA was doing."

Any programs authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, designed to allow the U.S. government to spy on foreign nationals but limit U.S. residents in the dragnet (and look how that worked out) will remain in place.

One of the more critical topics concerning Silicon Valley is the use of gagging orders — the so-called National Security Letters — whereby the secrecy surrounding the contents will be relaxed. The secrecy factor will no longer be automatically "indefinite," amid anger by companies implicated in the PRISM scandal, which were only allowed to disclose aggregate data requests.

Telecom companies, including AT&T and Verizon, which have previously been swept up by the surveillance scandal, will also be allowed to say more about what kind of information is being requested by government agencies.

One of the 46 recommendations in the 300-page report by the reform panel in December suggested that any such surveillance on foreign leaders would have to be carefully considered to weigh up the economic or diplomatic cost.

Obama will order an end to eavesdropping on dozens of allied heads of states in efforts to restore trust in the U.S. intelligence community. It comes after news that the NSA tapped the phones of 35 world leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel. Exactly who qualifies as an "ally" remains unknown, and does not extend to foreign aides and diplomats.

And, to appease anger in Europe, which sparked a near-diplomatic cut on data sharing between the two continents, non-U.S. residents have been promised additional protections. These reforms are expected in the coming months.

For the NSA, based on Obama's remarks, little will change in the agency's surveillance efforts.

"Now let me be clear," Obama said. "Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments — as opposed to ordinary citizens — around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does."

"We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective."

"But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners. The changes I've ordered do just that," he remarked

In other words: "Keep calm and carry on spying."

Topics: Security, Government US, Networking, Privacy

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  • "Obama's comments will likely not appease everyone"

    That would probably be better phrased as "Obama's comments will likely not appease anyone". Intelligence types and sundry national security hawks will believe that the President should have held the line. while critics will assert that he didn't go far enough, and wackos will take the news as proof that they're all about to be arrested and sent off to concentration camps.

    I think what has been announced is a reasonable start, but Congress (and possibly the courts) will need to do more.
    John L. Ries
    • The problem is privacy and the data being misused for political gains

      not to mention it hasn't stopped any attacks yet.
      • And how do you know this?

        Have any Republican political operatives been arrested recently?
        John L. Ries
        • Note to John L. Ries

          Check with the conservative groups that were targeted for IRS audits.
          • Separate issue

            The reasonable question there is whether the IRS has been as diligent in enforcing the law when the non-profit in question has been promoting Progressive political causes as it has when non-profits have been promoting Conservative ones. I do recall a couple of previous administrations that seemed eager to prosecute supposedly corrupt opposition politicians but did nothing to prosecute supposedly corrupt co-partisans of the then-President. That sort of selective enforcement is never acceptable no matter who the President is.

            My understanding is that the statute says that "educational" non-profits are barred from political activity entirely, but I'm no lawyer, know little about the issue, and am given to understand that the IRS has never followed that standard in practice (it has historically followed a 50% standard instead).
            John L. Ries
          • And even so...

            ...there is *no* evidence I'm aware of that US intelligence agencies have been feeding "dirt" on political opponents to any US administration since Richard Nixon's.
            John L. Ries
          • There is evidence, however,

            that bureaucracy has indeed release information that is unlawfully obtained. since we now know that this occurred, and given the depth of spying going on, one could easily assert that the burden of proof is on the government to show it is not happening. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2013/05/14/irs-released-confidential-info-on-conservative-groups-to-propublica/
            Tony Burzio
          • And how would that be proven?

            It's hard to prove a negative, especially to conspiracy theorists.
            John L. Ries
          • If you have nothing to hide...

            Let us see all of the NSA's records - and let Snowden return home to his well-deserved hero's welcome.
          • Ignorance isn't bliss

            Just because you don't see a fire, doesn't mean you should ignore the smoke.
          • An American tragedy (or farce)

            It’s not easy being a flag-waving American nationalist. In addition to having to deal with the usual disillusion, anger, and scorn from around the world incited by Washington’s endless bombings and endless wars, the nationalist is assaulted by whistle blowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, who have disclosed a steady stream of human-rights and civil-liberties scandals, atrocities, embarrassing lies, and embarrassing truths. Believers in "American exceptionalism" and "noble intentions" have been hard pressed to keep the rhetorical flag waving by the dawn’s early light and the twilight’s last gleaming.
          • To whom were you responding?

            it is possible to believe that one's government is imperfect without believing that it's the most oppressive regime in human history.

            In any case, we go on the evidence, try to fix what needs fixing, and ignore the conspiracy theorists and propagandists, who are always with us.
            John L. Ries
          • Put it this way

            Real totalitarians (or even authoritarians) wouldn't be allowing this discussion to take place on a site like this one.
            John L. Ries
          • False propaganda

            The illusion of freedom is a traditionally-employed and favored tactic of the most totalitarian governments. Vigilance (what NSA propagandists prefer to label conspiracy theory) is what keeps America from devolving into a more repressive regime. The Constitution is not yet ignored by everyone and a handful of people in power actually seem determined to keep their Oaths to defend it.
          • Please...

            It turned out that one IRS office tried to comp for being understaffed (due primarily to Republican-pushed budget cuts) by using politically incorrect but well-justfied shortcuts to ID right wing groups lying about the amount of their political activity. And at the end, not a single one ended being denied 501(c)(4) status despite many if not most of them being blatantly political organizations, and this was the real scandal.
        • Long train of abuse

  • Data misused for political gain

    Well, I could be wrong, however was not data misused for political gain when the NJ bridge had lanes closed. Retribution is what the news called it. Ah yes, staff members were fired, yet by their actions thousands of folks were inconvenienced. Data can be used for both good and bad. It seems more used to scare constituents not help them. If compiling all that data is considered for our protection, important, and useful, why did the Boston bombing occur?

    No, I do not have any answers, but I do have many questions. It seems to me it is the government for the government against the people, not for the people. When you scare folks enough folks will bury their heads; the ole boil the frog trick.
    • Most of us don't live in New Jersey, so...

      ...tell us more. Did the feds do this, or did the State of New Jersey? What reason do we have to believe that the closure was politically motivated? And how may this have been facilitated by the activities of the NSA or other federal agencies, which are the subject of this article?
      John L. Ries
  • "...held by a third party.."?

    Who are the first two parties? One, I assume is the NSA, who I agree should NOT be allowed to hold the raw data. Is the second party the telecommunications company that generated the data for their own automated business function of connecting the caller to the callee?

    Who can be trusted to hold the entire telephone metadata for the United States? I wouldn't trust ANY for-profit company to hold this data. The temptation to sell it to the highest bidder would be irresistible to an unscrupulous company executive.

    I would say, leave individual call metadata on the databases of the companies that generated the data, but lock it down with software that logs any outside access with a requestor name, court name, warrant number, and any other related information that clearly identifies the particular request as being authorized by a specific court ordered warrant based on documented probable cause. That's what the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES requires for a search:

    Amendment IV
    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    Even though this language is over 200 years old (or maybe because it is 200 years old), it is pretty clear. NO WARRANTS WITHOUT SPECIFIC PROBABLE CAUSE.
  • Yeah.....

    "What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale."

    He lost me right there. That is precisely what one of his campaign promises was; to eliminate the Patriot Act (which is anything but patriotic), the main funding vehicle of the NSA. Instead, when the extension of the Patriot Act came to his desk, he not only signed the extension but increased what could be done by the NSA.