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Obama's NSA Reforms Draw Tepid Response

Obama's NSA Reforms Draw Tepid Response

President Obama didn't make anyone completely happy with his list of NSA reforms, but there appears to be widespread -- if grudging -- acknowledgment that they represent some good first steps. That may be as good as it gets for the administration at this point. Obama did note that government's not the only one collecting vast amounts of personal data -- corporations are pretty good at it too.

By Richard Adhikari TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
01/18/14 5:00 AM PT

In a keenly anticipated speech, President Obama on Friday announced reforms to the United States National Security Agency's surveillance activities, but his pronouncements failed to please just about everyone.

"We heard nothing in his speech or proposal that will repair the damage that has been done to the tech industry and the future of the Internet," Matt Simons, director of social justice at ThoughtWorks, told TechNewsWorld.

Obama's speech did not mention other necessary reforms, including requiring prior judicial review of national security letters and ensuring the security and encryption of our digital tools, said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

There is controversy over the use of national security letters by the FBI, and tech companies are angered by the NSA's subverting encryption tools and tapping into their servers and the Internet.

The Presidential Reforms

The telephone metadata program under Section 215 of the US Patriot Act, which has aroused widespread anger among Americans, will be modified.

"I am ... ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establishing a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata," Obama said.

The Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, will annually review future opinions of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that have broad privacy implications for possible declassification. They will report on this to the White House and to Congress. The court oversees the NSA.

Obama called on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to "provide an independent voice in significant cases before the [FISC]."

Oversight of U.S. intelligence activities both at home and abroad will be strengthened, taking into account privacy and basic liberties among other factors.

Decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets will be reviewed annually by the president's senior national security team.

The U.S. government's ability to retain, search and use in criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will be further restricted.

Attorney General Holder has been directed to limit how long national security letters can be kept secret unless the government demonstrates a real need for the secrecy to continue.

"We support providing companies the opportunity to be more transparent with their disclosure requests for information from government," David LeDuc, senior director of public policy at the Software & Information Industry Association, told TechNewsWorld.

"Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say 'trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect,'" Obama said. "History has too many examples when that trust has been breached."

The Winter of Americans' Discontent

Some of the dissatisfaction over the announcements could spring from the president's attempts to spread the blame and from his portrayal of the NSA.

"There was a recognition by all who participated in these reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone," Obama said. "Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze your data, and use it for commercial purposes. That's how those targeted ads pop up on your computer and your smartphone periodically."

People at the NSA and other intelligence agencies "are our neighbors," Obama said. "They're our friends and family. They have kids on Facebook and Instagram."

We're Not Gonna Take This

"What it comes down to is this: The president wants data about every single American to be collected and retained," David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, told TechNewsWorld.

"As such, he wants to normalize practices that sparked mass outrage just last summer," he continued.

"We do not. That's why we'll ... push for passage of the USA Freedom Act," Segal said.

"The president's announcement today ... introduced some positive steps to restore confidence in how the U.S. government gathers data and protects the privacy of individuals," Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, told TechNewsWorld.

"However, the reforms discussed today," he said, "do not go far enough to establish the types of structural reforms needed to protect the economic interests of the United States."


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