Obama Report Says NSA Snooping Risks Public Trust

Sean Michael Kerner

President Obama’s task force wants to make sure a new Edward Snowden is not possible… or necessary, says Sean Michael Kerner

The Presidential Task Force set up by Barack Obama to respond to the intelligence leaks from former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has reported. Its suggestions are designed to make sure a repeat of the leaks is not necessary.. or possible.

The report titled, Liberty and Security in a Changing World, offers 46 recommendations to improve and overhaul US Intelligence activities. The task force report was ordered by President Barack Obama on 27 August to determine what could be done to assuage concerns about over-reaching government snooping while defending the strategic national interests of the United States. The report emphasises the critical importance that intelligence serves and stresses that data-collection efforts should continue, but with some new guidelines.

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“The ability of the United States to combat threats from state rivals, terrorists and weapons proliferators depends on the acquisition of foreign intelligence information from a broad range of sources and through a variety of methods,” the report states. “In an era increasingly dominated by technological advances in communications technologies, the United States must continue to collect signals intelligence globally in order to assure the safety of our citizens at home and abroad and to help protect the safety of our friends, our allies, and the many nations with whom we have cooperative relationships.”

The task force also makes note that it is critical to protect the right to privacy, democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law. The report also emphasises the importance of technological innovation in the US and the role that Internet freedom plays in that innovation.

“Excessive surveillance and unjustified secrecy can threaten civil liberties, public trust, and the core processes of democratic self-government,” the report states. “All parts of the government, including those that protect our national security, must be subject to the rule of law.”

In fact, the very first principle outlined in the report is that the US government must protect both national security and personal privacy. The report states that the US government has a constitutional obligation to uphold the rights of individuals as defined in the Fourth Amendment, which declares that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

Risking public trust

As such, the report suggests a number of reforms in how the US government collects intelligence on US citizens. The report recommends the alteration of Section 215 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which enables the government to collect information on all telephone calls made in the United States.

“We recommend that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes,” the report states. “In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty.”

The recommendation to end the bulk collection of phone call data is timely as a US District Court judge ruled earlier this week that the effort is likely unconstitutional.

Going a step further, the report suggests and recommends that greater transparency into surveillance efforts become the law.

“Legislation should be enacted requiring information about surveillance programs to be made available to the Congress and to the American people to the greatest extent possible (subject only to the need to protect classified information),” the report states. “We also recommend that legislation should be enacted authorising telephone, Internet, and other providers to disclose publicly general information about orders they receive directing them to provide information to the government.”

The need for greater transparency is one that US-based technology vendors have been advocating for in an open letter published earlier this month asking for a reform of government surveillance.

Looking beyond the borders of the United States, the report also recommends greater sensitivity and privacy outside the United States, as well.

“To reduce the risk of unjustified, unnecessary, or excessive surveillance in foreign nations, including collection on foreign leaders, we recommend that the president should create a new process, requiring highest-level approval of all sensitive intelligence requirements and the methods that the Intelligence Community will use to meet them,” the report states.

Time to reorganise NSA

The report also takes aim at the NSA and recommends that the position of NSA director require Senate confirmation and that civilians also be considered for the role – which  is currently held by General Keith Alexander.

The report also includes recommendations that are designed to limit the risk from insider threats from within the US government.

“A governing principle is plain: Classified information should be shared only with those who genuinely need to know,” the report states. “We recommend specific changes to improve the efficacy of the personnel vetting system.”

That recommendation could be seen as specifically aiming to ensure that another whistle-blower like Edward Snowden does not emerge in the coming year.

The report is now set to be reviewed by President Obama to determine the next steps and what recommendations should be implemented.

“Over the next several weeks, as we bring to a close the administration’s overall review of signals intelligence, the president will work with his national security team to study the review group’s report, and to determine which recommendations we should implement,” a White House statement explained. “The President will also continue consulting with Congress as reform proposals are considered in each chamber.”

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist. 

Originally published on eWeek.