Greater transparency of surveillance activities is to be introduced by the NSA, while the duration personal information can be held is to also be introduced.
Delivering a speech on Friday on the NSA, President Obama said that it will review decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis, so that its actions are regularly scrutinised by the senior national security team.
As well as this, a new Presidential directive will strengthen executive branch oversight of the intelligence activities, while the reform of programs and procedures will “fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of US persons.”
In regard to the collection of phone records of ordinary Americans, Obama said that rather than watching each person, “it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead.” However, he has ordered a new approach that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a new mechanism.
“This will not be simple. The Review Group recommended that our current approach be replaced by one in which the providers or a third party retain the bulk records, with the government accessing information as needed. Both of these options pose difficult problems. Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns,” he said.
“On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single, consolidated data-base would be carrying out what is essentially a Government function with more expense, more legal ambiguity, and a doubtful impact on public confidence that their privacy is being protected.”
Obama admitted that “more work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work”, so the transition away from the existing program will proceed in two steps: it will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organisation instead of three; and the Attorney General has been directed to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.
Obama said: “The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe.”
In regard to surveillance of foreign nationals, Obama said that its capabilities help protect not only the US, but also its friends and allies. “Our efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in other countries have confidence that the United States respects their privacy too.
“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. This applies to foreign leaders as well.”
The President said that given the attention that this issue has received, he has made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, it will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.
Commenting, Dwayne Melancon, chief technology officer for Tripwire called this a good step, but said that we need to see co
nvincing results to know that the changes are meaningful and concrete.
“This is a move in the right direction, since it imposes further barriers to limit the collection and use of surveillance data about US citizens. The big question is whether it will really make a difference or not. After all, many of the things that this new guidance is intended to prevent were already prohibited by the Constitution, what’s to make these new guidelines more effective?
“It’s unclear whether this will dramatically change what data is being collected and how that data is used. It’s also unclear what oversight will occur to ensure the new changes are effective. There is so much collection technology in place already it will be difficult to just ‘turn it off’ so that means there may still be a temptation to look at more data than is appropriate. That is definitely a concern.”