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Obama Moves To Limit NSA's Surveillance Activity

Looking to strike a balance between maintaining security against major threats and ensuring individual privacy, President Barack Obama today ordered a halt to the current Section 215 bulk metadata program in its current form. The president also recommended a set of reviews and guidelines aimed at putting limits on the National Security Agency's surveillance activities.

The move is the strongest effort yet by the administration to dial back the activities since last year's disclosure by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of the agency's surveillance programs. However, today's announced changes did not seek to eliminate it. Snowden's revelations last June have shattered the trust of individuals and IT pros alike.

In a speech (transcript) this morning at the Justice Department, the president argued that the review group he commissioned last year did not discover any indication of abuse when mining the metadata found in phone records. Obama emphasized a point he, NSA officials and others have frequently made since Snowden disclosed the various surveillance efforts such as PRISM: The government isn't going through records of domestic citizens but only a consolidated database of records service providers already save for billing and other routine purposes.

Because the review panel concluded it saw no signs of abuse, Obama said, "I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved," citing its effectiveness in thwarting attacks since Sept. 11 2001. But he added the program does need added safeguards moving forward to prevent the potential that exists for abuse.

"This type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future," Obama said. "They're also right to point out that although the telephone bulk collection program was subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, it has never been subject to vigorous public debate."

Obama said the review board's recommendation that replacing its current approach to tracking records with a third party isn't practical, noting it would pose technical questions, new privacy concerns, cost and less accountability. Another option was raised -- maintaining the current capabilities but using a combination of authorities with improved information sharing. "More work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work," he said.

As such, Obama ordered that the NSA transition from its current program. The government will only target phone calls that are two steps removed from terrorist organizations rather than the existing three. Obama also ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to collaborate with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow agents to only query the database following a judicial order or if there's an immediate emergency.

During the transition, the president also asked Holder to determine how the metadata can be made accessible through what is called the Section 215 program without holding the data itself. Obama has asked for those alternatives by March 28 and he'll seek permission from Congress to launch any new programs (if required), Obama said.

"I believe we need a new approach," he said. "I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata."

Obama announced the government has declassified over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which reviews what he said is the most sensitive activities including Section 702 program targeting foreign individuals overseas as well as Section 215 telephone metadata program. Furthermore, he asked Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. to review the privacy implications of surveillance activities and report to the president and Congress yearly. Obama also called on Congress to approve a panel of advocates from outside the government to weigh in on major cases before the FISC.

To address criticism that the government isn't transparent in its programs, Obama directed Holder to lift restrictions on so-called national security letters, which are used to petition data on individuals without their knowledge, to disclose those inquiries after an investigation has gone past the need for security. "We will also enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government," he said.

While critics see these as a step in the right direction, some argue Obama's statement is incremental at best and is not likely to put an end to this debate. "Despite these welcomed reforms, the president's recommendations are still lacking when it comes to striking the appropriate balance between privacy and security," said Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coaliton) chairman Christian Dawson, in a statement issued after Obama's speech. "Without actions that include meaningful reforms to both bulk surveillance, and the indiscriminate use of National Security Letters, all together such a balance is unlikely to be achieved."

Political rants aside, what's your take on the president's move to curtail bulk collections and review metadata analysis?

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 01/17/2014 at 3:44 PM


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