President Obama can’t halt the NSA’s data collection, even if he wanted to, says Peter Judge
On Friday, President Obama promised to rein in NSA surveillance activities in response to Edward Snowden’s revelations, but the announcement will make little practical difference to the intelligence agency – or the vast industry of data collection and storage.
The president promised that present activity will end “as it currently exists”, but it turns out there’s not likely to be a lot of change to the data gathered, or the data centres which both hold the data and have enabled this whole process.
Praising the detectives
At the start, the President praised the good work of the security services in preventing terrorist actions, and explained that the whole issue of preventative surveillance has come to the fore since 9/11, which many said was enabled by a failure of intelligence gathering and sharing.
That was a long time ago, and this year, leaks from Edward Snowden revealed a surveillance operation which civil rights activists say is out of hand – and which isn’t even doing a very good job of spotting dangers, according to reports.
Firstly, although the outrage comes from round the world and covers many kinds of surveillance, the President restricted himself to one portion of that. He didn’t address emails, or other Internet traffic. He didn’t even address SMS text messages (the NSA harvests 200 million a day). He only spoke of limiting access to telephone metadata: information about phone calls.
For Americans Only
Secondly, his talk was only addressed to US citizens, talking about how the US government will monitor their behaviour. He briefly promised that the US would no longer spy on “friendly” heads of state. But what about their staff? And how do you define friendly? Would a hard stare and a critical speech from Germany’s Angela Merkel justify bugging her phone again?
Even with US phone metadata, the President’s promises don’t change much. The process continues with more legal safeguards. As David Segal, of civil liberties group Demand Progress, put it. “What it comes down to is this: The president wants data about every single American to be collected and retained. He wants to normalise practices that sparked mass outrage just last summer.”
The data will continue to be collected. That has always been a given, since intelligence agencies say it is a good thing. There’s a small tweak in that phone records will only be stored if they are two steps from a suspected terrorist, not three.
The authorities will only be able to access records, if they have court orders… but these appear to come from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court – which is secret. And agencies can access without court orders if they perceive an emergency.
A third party store… really?
One thing Obama did say was that, although the data will carry on accumulating, it will no longer be held by the government. Instead it will either be at the service providers, or at a third party.
What does that mean? Well it doesn’t mean a halt to the progress of the NSA’s giant Utah data centre. That’s entirely for gathering foreign data – which will carry on as normal.
The third party option sounds like the creation of an autonomous body to hold US phone records, and it’s hard to see how this is less risky than the NSA. The service provider option would require complex means to access service provider records under some sort of control, with adequate security.
So those involved in government and service provider data centers will have plenty to get on with. Which is no surprise.
Big data centres, like big weapons, can’t be uninvented. The fact that this data gathering can be done (more or less affordably, more or less legally) ensures that it will be done, by some combination of governments, service providers and social media colossi.
Controlling all this is the tricky bit – and that applies to economic and political controls, just as much as to the technological controls which try to make sure, when the work is done, that it is done efficiently and well.
A version of this post appeared on Green Data Center News