FISA-authorised rule change allows NSA to hunt for Americans’ communications

U.S. President Barack Obama held a secret meeting with the senior officials of tech giant Apple, telecom major AT&T, a computer scientist from Google, and several civil liberties groups on Thursday to discuss government surveillance, according to unnamed official sources that spoke to Politico magazine.

This meeting, the second in one week, appeared to be part of a larger campaign by the Obama administration to fulfil the President’s promise that he would support a detailed national conversation about the need for counterterrorism surveillance vis-à-vis privacy concerns.

Surveillance

In the interactions, Mr. Obama was said to have focused on the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)’s covert programmes for the global surveillance of millions worldwide, specifically addressing privacy concerns sparked by exposés of Edward Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after fleeing the U.S.

However even as news of these meetings emerged, The Guardian newspaper published documents showing that the NSA “has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority enabling it to search for U.S. citizens’ e-mail and phone calls without a warrant”.

Referencing a top-secret document passed by Mr. Snowden The Guardian said that the “rule change” authorised by the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court allowed NSA operatives “to hunt for individual Americans’ communications using their name or other identifying information”.

In this context, the new rules appeared to “contrast with repeated assurances from Barack Obama and senior intelligence officials to both Congress and the American public that the privacy of U.S. citizens is protected from the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programmes”, the newspaper added.

Critics of the NSA’s surveillance in the U.S. Congress in recent weeks came close to de-funding some of the snooping programmes, particularly the Agency’s collection of the telephone records of U.S. citizens from another major telecom company, Verizon.

Closed-door session

After this week’s closed-door session with Apple CEO Tim Cook; AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson; and Google scientist Vint Cerf, neither the White House nor any of the attendees of the meeting agreed to comment on the discussions, according to reports.

The initial meeting between top administration officials and corporate and civil liberty representatives was on Tuesday, when White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and General Counsel Kathy Ruemmler were said to have “convened a privacy-focused huddle in the Roosevelt Room”, along with members of tech industry associations; major defence contractors;

companies such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft; and the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Centre.

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