Tighter Reins on Phone Surveillance, but Data Collection Continues

Posted on January 23, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized |

By James Scott

President Obama announced changes to the way the National Security Administration (NSA) collects and uses telephone data, but he left the program in place and said the information on millions of American phone calls can stay in the hands of the NSA, for now at least.

Obama said the telephone data collection had to continue because it is critical to detecting terrorist activity and foiling terror plots. The steps he announced will not silence privacy critics, but they do add another layer of protections for American’s electronic privacy.

This is reasonable. The threat posed by the metadata to privacy in America has been greatly overstated, prompting fears that the government was listening in on every conversation and keeping track of everything every American does online.

What the metadata program does is allow the NSA to see what numbers are calling what numbers, when and for how long. And they can only look across two degrees of separation, or call hops as they are called. One of the reforms Obama announced was the decrease in the number of allowable hops from three to two.

The other thing he did was to require NSA requests for metadata to be approved beforehand by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Such requests were already being reviewed by FISC, but not until after the information was already accessed.

Obama also said intelligence authorities would be banned from eavesdropping on the communications of allied leaders.

This, predictably, did little to silence critics of the program, which was made public by leaks from fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Opponents say the NSA cannot be trusted with communications data and wonder why they should believe that government is capable of policing itself.

Obama put off acting on one recommendation that goes directly to those concerns. He indicated his administration would eventually take the data out of the hands of the NSA and store it with a third party, perhaps the telephone companies. He asked the Department of Justice for a recommendation.

This probably wouldn’t change anything, since the third party would be required to turn over the information to the NSA whenever a transfer is approved by the FISC. And it also might lead to even greater privacy risks since the data would then be in the hands of more entities.

But it wasn’t all criticism from those active in the fight for digital privacy rights. In a tweet, the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a leveled-headed assessment that many Americans probably agree with:

“Today, Obama took several steps toward reforming NSA surveillance, but there’s a long way to go. Now it’s up Congress & courts.”

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