President Obama’s Surveillance Reform
Earlier today, President Obama gave a speech in which he announced some big changes to America’s government surveillance programs. The changes offer a promise to protect the privacy of American citizens while placing more restrictions on the varying ways the NSA can use the information it collects. At the moment, the changes mainly concern the NSA’s massive collection of phone records pertaining to American citizens, and less so internet communications.
The speech came with a Presidential Surveillance Directive in which the White House offers explanations for the necessity of Signal Intelligence Activities. While the reform to the bulk telephone record collection is promising because it would end the program as it exists and move the direct control of phone records out of government control and into the hands of a third party, like phone companies, requiring the NSA to acquire permission to collect information on the grounds of its relevancy to a national security investigation, the President spoke very little about internet communication.
The programs will not put an end to National Security Letters, the secret government orders that force internet companies like Google and Facebook to turn over user information to the FBI, without alerting the users. There is not even the added protection of judicial oversight. NSL’s are almost exclusively controlled by the FBI.
E-mail surveillance also is getting very little oversight and it seems as though the program is not changing even slightly. In fact, the president defended the NSA’s collection of e-mails, stating, “The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails.”
However, the President did promise to create an external oversight for the NSA through the judiciary branch of government in an attempt to keep the agency in check. He also promised to end the spying on foreign leaders. Still, though, crypto-nerds will be sad to learn that nothing is being done about the NSA’s attempts at weakening encryption standards, which is essentially weakening tools that enable online privacy.
President Obama’s new reforms offer some hope, but little change. If the most controversial program was indeed the collection of phone records, perhaps the news is reassuring. But for those who are more concerned with the NSA reading emails or monitoring web browsing, there was very little offered, indeed.