U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday announced four key reforms to the National Security Agency’s massive online and telephone spy programmes, apparently seeking to bring a “greater transparency to our surveillance activities” affecting friendly nations such as India, which have been major targets of American snooping.
Following last summer’s dramatic disclosures regarding the extent of the NSA’s data collection across the world, including intercepting communications of government officials in India and other friendly countries, by Edward Snowden, whistleblower and former NSA contractor, there has been a sharp debate on the likely erosion of privacy and civil liberties in the U.S. Numerous intelligence heads including NSA boss Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper were grilled by the U.S. Congress on whether any rules of the governing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court were flouted as spying was undertaken by the agency.
The White House appeared to be distancing itself from some of the allegations that followed in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s exposés, particularly that the NSA had been snooping on the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2002.
This week Mr. Obama announced bold, if limited, reform measures to intelligence programmes, including issuing a new presidential directive for “signals intelligence activities”, at home and abroad that would take into account not only security requirements, “but also our alliances; our trade and investment relationships.”
Second, Mr. Obama said, he would seek to build on the declassification of over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, “including the Section 702 programme targeting foreign individuals overseas and the Section 215 telephone metadata programme,” and direct the DNI to “annually review — for the purpose of declassification — any future opinions of the Court with broad privacy implications.”
Third, further protections for activities targeting foreign nationals would be instituted, specifically including “additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases, communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702”.
Fourth, Mr. Obama indicated his willingness to address complaints regarding data collection made by large Internet companies such as Google and Facebook, when he said secrecy surrounding data requests made to these companies “will not be indefinite, and will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.”
Mr. Obama’s announcement was greeted with criticism from privacy rights advocates, with Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who worked with Mr. Snowden to get the disclosures on the NSA out, saying, “It’s really just basically a PR gesture, a way to calm the public and to make them think there’s reform when in reality there really won’t be… They’re going to need more than just a pretty speech from President Obama to feel as though their concerns have been addressed.”
Similarly Congressman Ron Wyden of Oregon said on Twitter, “It’s imperative to be vigilant- the normalization of bulk government collection of private data is NEVER okay.”
Overall Mr. Obama said that he refused to “stop these programmes wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure; but also because nothing in [the recently completed intelligence] review… indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law”.
However he said he maintained a “healthy scepticism toward our surveillance programmes,” and admitted, “the government collection and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse”.