Barack Obama has finally unveiled his reforms for the National Security Agency (NSA), and those reforms are little more than window dressing.
Here’s the short version, read on if you’d like more detail.
The mass collection of all internet data will continue. The NSA will continue to undermine and sabotage encryption. The NSA will continue to try to pass warrantless data along to local law enforcement for non-terror investigations. The mass collection of phone records will continue as well.
According to EFF, which rated his changes a 3.5 out of 12, there are three types of mass surveillance: surveillance of millions of phone records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act; surveillance of Internet communications internationally under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act; and surveillance of communications overseas under Executive Order 12333.
Obama only addressed one of those issues, telephony, and only addressed it partially.
The mass data-collection of all internet communications will continue relentlessly.
Additionally, there was no mention of the NSA’s systematic efforts to weaken and sabotage the encryption and security technologies used to keep communications private. Not a word was spoken. This will continue as well.
Finally, Obama made no mention of the fact that the NSA is collecting data and metadata without warrant, and then passing it along to state and local law enforcement for use in non-terror criminal investigations via the Special Operations Division.
See the remainder of the EFF’s 12 points here
As far as the phone records, what Obama announced could be just a sleight of hand. From the Guardian:
Obama announced his intention to “transition” to a new system which would no longer require the US government to directly keep the phone database itself. Instead, the NSA will be required either to take the records from phone companies themselves, or from an as-yet-unspecified third party (with the latter option more likely, for ease of rapid searching).
While that course of action was endorsed by Obama’s review panel, it’s not one that privacy advocates are particularly fond of: phone records will still be collected, stored, and available for search by the intelligence agencies. The question of where the data actually sits is, to opponents of the program, far less significant than the fact it is being stored at all.
In other words, he is just planning on moving the phone spying to a new system.
ACLU weighed in on the issue as well, calling the President’s proposals, “highly troubling.”
“However, the president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling. The president outlined a process to study the issue further and appears open to alternatives. But the president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution. The president’s own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety.”
Shahid Buttar at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee was unimpressed as well:
“The reforms announced by the president today are a meager step in the right direction, but far from enough to fix the NSA’s assault on the rights of hundreds of millions of Americans.
Requiring the NSA to secure judicial approval in order to query its massive databases is the very least the president could require. Allowing bulk collection to continue, whether by the NSA or private corporations, will undermine freedom of thought and erode democracy.”
Over at The Verge, a grade of C was given, with this comment, “In sum, President Obama’s new reforms offer some hope, but little change.”
The sad truth is this: a C grade might be appropriate in a time when no change is the norm.
The President is not planning on making any substantive changes to the NSA. In 1975, Sen. Frank Church warned that if a dictator ever took over, the NSA “could enable [him] to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.” Church recognized the power of the NSA over three decades ago, and its power continued unabated.
The USA Freedom Act, which many tout as a solution in Congress is unlikely to get past the Senate Intelligence Committee, with any meaningful restrictions. It will be required to go through that committee and NSA-cheerleader Diane Feinstein is the powerful committee chair.
Recent opinions in two District Courts indicate that it is highly unlikely that the federal court system is going to do the job.
That leaves us in a place where only the people in their states can take actions which will make the continuation of NSA surveillance programs untenable. Already six states have introduced various forms of the 4th Amendment Protection Act, and more are on the way.