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Obama Proposes Broad Surveillance Review

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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President Obama’s proposed changes to the NSA’s surveillance regime faces staunch opposition within Congress, while privacy advocates say it does not go far enough

US politicians made it clear over the weekend that President Barack Obama’s plan to make changes to the NSA’s surveillance programmes will face serious opposition in Congress, with some Republicans challenging one of the plan’s principal features.

On Sunday Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representatives, criticised Obama’s suggested introduction of an advocate for privacy concerns before the secret court that oversees the NSA’s data collection efforts. Such a measure would “slow down the efficacy and efficiency of our counterterrorism investigation,” said McCaul, speaking to the NBC television network.

‘Confidence’

Obama announced the review on Friday shortly before departing for his summer vacation, admitting that it was needed to create “confidence” in the government’s intelligence efforts. It is to be the first wide-ranging review of US intelligence since the introduction of the Patriot Act, introduced in 2001 following the World Trade Centre attacks.

prism privacy transparemcu © MilanB Shutterstock“It is not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programmes. The American people need to have confidence in them as well,” Obama said.

He said a panel of independent figures will “review our entire intelligence and communications technologies” and report before the end of the year, admitting that the decision was prompted by the revelations of former NSA security consultant Edward Snowden, which had “changed the environment” with regard to public perceptions of the government.

In light of Snowden’s “drip by drip” disclosures, “it makes sense to go ahead, lay out what exactly we are doing, have a discussion with Congress, have a discussion with industry, which is also impacted by this, have a discussion with civil libertarians, and see if we can do this better”, Obama said.

Obama said he will “pursue appropriate reforms” to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has been used to authorise the NSA’s bulk collection of “metadata” such as telephone records.

He said he will also work with Congress to introduce an “adversarial” element to the secret court that oversees the NSA’s surveillance efforts. The court, established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, currently makes its decisions based solely on hearings with US Justice Department lawyers.

Criticism

Obama conceded that the court’s proceedings “only hear one side of the story” and “may tilt it too far in favour of security, may not pay enough attention to liberty”. The review may push for “privacy advocates” to be introduced “in appropriate cases”, in order to “jigger slightly” the balance between intelligence and privacy.

Privacy advocates were quick to point out that none of the measures suggested by Obama would affect the NSA’s ongoing mass data collection.

Obama appears to be “paying lip service to transparency and accountability”, said Rainey Reitman, director of the activism team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “President Obama did not commit to reducing the surveillance of Americans’ communications or the communications of individuals abroad who are not suspected of any crime.”

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, welcomed Obama’s proposals but said he would push to see them “strengthened”. Wyden, among others, is looking to end the NSA’s mass phone-data collection programme. In July the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment which would have cut off funding for the NSA’s mass phone surveillance.

Any legislation aiming to change the NSA’s surveillance regime would have to pass through the intelligence committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which are dominated by defenders of the existing programmes.

Public image

Some observers remarked that Obama’s focus is on improving the public image of US intelligence, rather than on making changes. Throughout the furore sparked by Snowden’s disclosures Obama has maintained that there is no evidence that intelligence agencies “abused” their powers.

Justin Amash, a Republican member of Congress who has fought against the NSA’s phone surveillance programmes, said Obama’s announcement showed that mainstream politicians are “out of touch”.

“They arrogantly insist the main reason that the public is against surveillance is a lack of understanding,” he said.

Snowden is currently in Russia, where he was granted one year of political asylum after spending 40 days in diplomatic limbo in the Moscow airport. Moscow’s decision to grant this asylum apparently spiked a meeting between President Obama and Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the NSA has said it will lay off about 90 percent of its system administrators, partly in order to limit the exposure of its secret surveillance data.

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