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

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.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
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."

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