The White House has released a lengthy report written by a five-member panel recommending sweeping reforms of the NSA. Included among the 46 recommendations by the “Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” is one to delete all bulk telephone metadata on Americans from the NSA’s servers. The panel also suggested that the data should be allowed to be stored by the private telecoms for a capped length of time — five years in most cases — accessible by the NSA only through court order or other official third-party permission.
The metadata in question numbers more than 1 trillion records according to “some former officials,” reports the Washington Post. They include information about all Americans’ telephone calls, such as who they called, when they called them, and so on, but not necessarily the content of the communications themselves.
The panel also recommended that the NSA be forced to stop requesting “back doors” and “zero days” to privately produced encrypted software as a means of hacking into computers running those programs. The practical reasoning behind this recommendation is that the back doors are weakening global encryption standards set up in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Americans’ privacy wasn’t the only subject addressed in the report. The panel — whose members’ names and occupations are unknown as of right now — additionally recommended that foreign individuals be included under the Privacy Act of 1974. That bill currently protects Americans not suspected of a crime from being snooped by law enforcement, as per the 4th Amendment. More of the NSA’s spying should go through the White House, Congress, and the courts, rather than continuing to let the NSA act unilaterally.
A chief concern of the panel is that there are not just civil rights issues at stake, but also economic consequences of the NSA spying on literally the entire world. Companies overseas are becoming increasingly wary of doing business with American tech companies for fear they are serving at the behest of the Orwellian “Big Brother”, as it were. (The fear goes in both directions, of course.)
The recommendations to the White House are just that. The Obama administration is under no obligation to follow them. Moreover, some of the recommendations would have to be applied by Congress or the courts, not the White House.
Whether President Obama moves aggressively on any of the recommendations remains to be seen in the coming weeks and months, but the recent court case in which a federal judge deemed the NSA bulk phone data collection unconstitutional should have some effect on the President’s response to the panel.