It’s been more than seven months since Edward Snowden began feeding stolen NSA documents to reporters, and in that time, virtually everyone in Washington who could find a microphone or keyboard has voiced an opinion on the agency’s methods and Snowden’s actions. Everyone except President Barack Obama, that is. Obama has been mostly silent on the subject, preferring to let NSA officials and lawmakers speak, but that’s set to change Friday when he is due to speak publicly about proposed reforms for the NSA.
Obama is expected to address some of the 46 recommendations contained in a report produced by his own handpicked panel of lawyers, professors and security experts, the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. Much of what the panel addressed in its report comprised recommendations on how to limit the scope of certain NSA collection programs or increase the transparency around their use. However, privacy advocates and other observers say that is just the beginning of what needs to change about the agency’s surveillance methods and data retention. One of the key issues is the NSA’s use of dragnet surveillance methods to collect electronic communications such as phone calls, emails and Web traffic.
Lawyers at the EFF say limiting scope of this kind of surveillance isn’t enough. Rather, the NSA should go back to performing highly targeted surveillance.
“The NSA has disingenuously argued that simply acquiring this data isn’t actually “collecting” and that no privacy violation can take place unless the information it stores is actually seen by a human or comes up through an automated searches of what it has collected. That’s nonsense. The government’s current practices of global dragnet surveillance constitute general warrants that violate the First and Fourth Amendments, and fly in the face of accepted international human rights laws. Obama needs to direct the NSA to engage only in targeted surveillance and stop its programs of mass surveillance, something he can do with a simple executive order,” Cindy Cohn and Rainey Reitman of the EFF wrote in an assessment of what Obama may discuss Friday.
An alternative to the cell phone metadata program, recommended by the president’s panel, is to remove the NSA’s ability to store all of that data in-house and put the onus on the communications companies instead. That would require companies such as Verizon and AT&T to hold such data in reserve, for some undefined period of time, awaiting requests from the NSA. The EFF worries that this will turn the companies into nothing but arms of the agency.
“But companies shouldn’t be pressed into becoming the NSA’s agents by keeping more data than they need or keeping it longer than they need to. To the contrary, companies should be working on ways to store less user data for less time—decreasing the risks from data breaches and intrusions like the one that just happened to Target. Data retention heads in the wrong direction for our security regardless of whether the government or private parties store the information,” they said.
The EFF also encouraged Obama to pressure the NSA not to engage in activities that subvert the security of protocols or encryption algorithms, something that has become a major discussion point in security circles in recent months.
“These practices include weakening standards, attacking technology companies, and preventing security holes from being fixed. As the president’s review group recognized, this has serious consequences for any industry that relies on digital security—finance, medicine, transportation, and countless others, along with anyone in the world who relies on safe, private communication. Obama should follow the recommendations of his review group and immediately stop the NSA’s efforts to undermine or weaken the security of our technologies,” Cohn and Reitman wrote.
All in all, privacy advocates are not expecting Obama to announce major changes to the NSA’s programs or mission.
“Many people are skeptical that the president will create meaningful limits to the NSA’s practice of sweeping up the digital communications of millions of people worldwide. Instead of actually stopping the spying, Obama could just make pronouncements calling for more transparency or additional layers of bureaucratic oversight. Basically, he could duck the most important thing he could do to show leadership: rein in government surveillance,” Cohn and Reitman said.