U.S. President Barack Obama’s willingness to consider proposals to end the dragnet surveillance of telephone metadata by the National Security Agency (NSA) marks a “turning point and… the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public’s seat at the table of government,” according to whistleblower Edward Snowden.
From an undisclosed location in Russia, where he has obtained temporary asylum after the U.S. pressed criminal charges against him, Mr. Snowden said in a statement delivered via the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “I believed that if the NSA’s unconstitutional mass surveillance of Americans was known, it would not survive the scrutiny of the courts, the Congress, and the people.”
This week the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was “preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the NSA’s once-secret bulk phone records program[me] in a way that — if approved by Congress — would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year.”
Under the proposal, they said, the NSA would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the NSA could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.
At a press conference last December, Mr. Obama appeared to be leaning towards the recommendations of a review panel to “shift responsibility for the bulk collection of telephone records away from the NSA and on to the phone companies,” in a bid to restore public confidence.
Since last June, a sharp debate on the Internet and telephone spying programmes of the NSA has taken place, after Mr. Snowden passed on confidential Agency documents to the press.
Besides significant criticism of the NSA’s mass surveillance by members of Congress, some U.S. courts also appear to have taken a strong view on the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court to rubber-stamp data collection on millions of individuals, including American citizens.
In particular, District Court Judge Richard Leon granted a temporary order blocking the government from collecting metadata from the Verizon Wireless accounts of the two plaintiffs, describing such surveillance as “indiscriminate” and “arbitrary” and possibly in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Referencing such court opinions Mr. Snowden said this week, “The very first open and adversarial court to ever judge these programs has now declared them ‘Orwellian’ and ‘likely unconstitutional.’
In the USA FREEDOM Act, Congress is considering historic, albeit incomplete reforms. And President Obama has now confirmed that these mass surveillance program[me]s, kept secret from the public and defended out of reflex rather than reason, are in fact unnecessary and should be ended.”