Obama's NSA surveillance reform ideas: A big deal?

In the wake of revelations about the NSA, President Obama has outlined four steps to reform US surveillance policies. What’s the reaction among security and privacy experts?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. The president said he'll work with Congress to change the oversight of some of the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance programs.

At his press conference Friday afternoon President Obama outlined four steps he said he’s willing to make to reform US surveillance policies, which have been the subject of intense debate in Washington and around the world following the disclosures of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

First, Obama said he’d work with Congress on “appropriate” changes to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the section of law that authorizes the National Security Agency to collect and store logs of phone calls made from or to the US.

Second, he said he’d work with Congress to strengthen public confidence in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides judicial oversight to some US intelligence activities. The president said he’d be open to adding an advocate for civil liberties into FISC proceedings, to ensure judges hear both sides of any security versus privacy debate.

Third, he said he’d increase transparency of US surveillance activities as much as possible. The intelligence community is creating a website on which to post information and the NSA will name a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, according to Obama.

Fourth, the president said he’d name a high level group of outside experts to review the nation’s entire intelligence and communications technology effort.

The changes are meant to reassure a public rattled by reports of vast NSA collection activities, according to the administration.

“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well,” said Obama.

So, are these proposed changes a big deal? What’s the reaction among security and privacy experts?

Well, it’s nice that the president has finally spoken up on this issue, according to officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been critical of the scope of NSA collection activities. But from their point of view this is only a start.

“While the initial reforms outlined by the president are a necessary and welcome first step, they are not nearly sufficient,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero in a statement.

The proposed changes are largely addressed at reforming what the government can do with information once it has been collected, the ACLU notes. They are less concerned with limiting the amount of information the NSA can collect in the first place.

That’s a point echoed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, one of the authors of the Patriot Act. Following the president’s remarks to reporters Friday a spokesman for Rep. Sensenbrenner said the lawmaker would propose a new law to “rein in the dragnet collection of data by the NSA,” according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, at the Lawfare national security legal blog, University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney said that the idea of adding a security-cleared attorney who would argue against the government’s view into the FISC judicial review process could be important. That would be particularly so if such an advocate could lodge appeals and other legal motions as far up the legal ladder as the Supreme Court.

The other proposals were vague enough that they could either be substantive, or superficial, in Chesney’s view.

“I would say the expression of support for adding adversariality to the FISC process in some cases is, by far, the biggest news here,” writes Chesney.

Finally, many observers noted that Obama’s references to leaker Snowden were somewhat illogical. On the one hand, Obama was careful to note that he did not see Snowden as a patriot. Quite the contrary, he described the former NSA systems administrator as someone who has been charged with three felonies. If Snowden really believes he’s a whistleblower, he should come back to the US and make his legal case, said Obama.

At the same time the president said that open debate and the democratic process are what make the US different from many other nations, and that the changes he proposed are important. If so, why weren’t the disclosures which sparked them good things?

Obama implied that he would have eventually convened a review and made the same proposals anyway, but that’s unlikely, writes the Washington Post’s Timothy Lee on the tech policy blog “The Switch”.

“Whether or not Snowden is a patriot, it’s clear that his disclosures made possible a more vigorous and well-informed public debate about the NSA’s programs than would have happened otherwise,” writes Lee.

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