Obama: NSA Phone Surveillance Will Be Controlled… Some Day

President Obama has promised that there will be changes to the NSA’s surveillance practices revealed in the material leaked by Edward Snowden. He said that access to the huge quantities of communications data collected by the US intelligence agencies will be restricted and civil liberties will be respected, but has already faced criticism for “normalising” rather than stopping the mass collection of data.

The speech was meant as a response to a huge public outcry, and the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force set up in the wake of the revelations. President Obama has decided to keep the huge database of phone records, but promised it will only be accessed with good reason, and made a further promise that “friendly” foreign heads of state will not be bugged, something that happened to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Court order required?

The President spent some time underlining the differences between collecting metadata (such as the time and destination of calls) and actually tapping the line, saying the services are not “cavalier” and do not routinely listen in on calls.

He gave few definite answers or proposals, saying that a review of intelligence gathering practices “cannot be completed overnight”.  He said the programme will end “as it currently exists”, but that the data collection schemes would continue. In future the data will be held by third parties or service providers, instead of the Government.

He promised that access to the data collected will be somewhat more restricted, ordering the justice department and the secret intelligence court to devise a way to make sure the phone database can only be queried “after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency”. Some sort of court order will be required, but it is not yet clear on what bases such an order would be issued.

Obama made a promise  that would somewhat restrict the future growth of the database: until now, the NSA has been authorised to follow up calls which are three steps away from a “known terrorist organisation”, but this will now be restricted to two.

However, he was robust in defending the existence of the programme, pointing out that America has “real enemies” and that intelligence is needed to “protect the American people”.

The president concluded: “Because of the strength of our own democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations. For more than two centuries, our constitution has weathered every type of change because we have been willing to defend it, and because we have been willing to question the actions that have been taken in its defence.”

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Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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