Obama to Reform NSA Spying Programs

On Friday, President Obama spoke before the Department of Justice to comment on his administration’s internal review of intelligence programs used by the National Security Agency. The administration’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies suggested 40 changes to surveillance practices in the president’s report delivered last month.

In his statements, Obama ordered a new path for the United State’s surveillance programs, in particular the controversial ‘Section 215’ provision that allows the government to hold bulk metadata on the phone calls of all Americans. Less than 24 hours after the Guardian reported that the NSA collects over 200 million text messages every day using mass data surveillance techniques, the president offered bold reforms for the surveillance community.

During his speech Obama said:

Since we began this review, including the information being released today, we’ve declassified over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides Judicial Review of some of our most sensitive intelligence activities. Including the Section 702 program targeting foreign individuals overseas and the Section 215, telephone metadata program. Going forward I’m directing the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Attorney General, to annually review for the purposes of declassification, any future opinions of the court with broad privacy implications, and to report to me and to congress on these efforts.

In his remarks, the president outlined additional reforms to be implemented in the coming months:

  • Transition away from section 215 metadata collection
  • Reduce the purview of acceptable surveillance targets from three steps removed from a known terrorist to two
  • Implement additional privacy protections under section 702
  • Protocol on National Security Letters that are given to private companies will be amended by the attorney general
  • Databases with bulk information can only be queried after a judicial finding or in a “true emergency”
  • A new senior official will be appointed at the White House to oversee the implementation of reforms
  • John Podesta will lead a review of ‘big data,’ privacy, and suggest a strategy to develop international norms
  • Appoint an independent privacy advocate to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Congress’ reception to Obama’s plan has been mixed. The Republican Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, said the reforms don’t go far enough.

While I am encouraged the President is addressing the NSA spying program because of pressure from Congress and the American people, I am disappointed in the details. The Fourth Amendment requires an individualized warrant based on probable cause before the government can search phone records and e-mails.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Mark Udall (D-Colorado), and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) authored a joint letter which echoed some of Senator Paul’s concerns:

We also believe that additional surveillance reforms are necessary, and we will continue to push for these reforms in the coming weeks and months.  In particular, we will work to close the “back-door searches” loophole and ensure that the government does not read Americans’ emails or other communications without a warrant. 

Whether or not the president’s plan will be implemented to the degree that was outlined remains to be seen. It will be up to the senior officials at the White House and State Department as well as Congress to carry out the reforms as laid out in the president’s speech.

Image credit: Pete Souza