President Obama has defended the NSA‘s spying actions, arguing that the continuing pace of technological advancement means surveillance is essential, though revealing a “series of concrete and substantial reforms” he believes will address public concerns. The proposals, already being picked apart by privacy advocates, include changing the controversial section 215 metadata program, and what Obama described as the “unprecedented” extending of rights around monitoring to non-US citizens outside of America.
Obama contrasted the NSA’s data collection with how corporations like Google mine metadata for information around which advertising campaigns can be built. However, “the standards for government surveillance should be higher” the President conceded, admitting that “history has too many examples of when trust has been breached.”
Obama refused “to dwell” on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, saying only that “our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted by our nation’s secrets.” He also criticized how Snowden’s revelations had been handled, describing them as “sensational” and announced in ways that “often shed more heat than light.”
Nonetheless, on the 215 metadata program which gathers text message and call logs, Obama insisted that there was “no indication that [the metadata] has been intentionally abused.” In fact, the President argued that the NSA and other security agencies “is staffed by patriots” and that they do “an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic.”
Moving forward, effective immediately the 215 program will only be pursued for calls that are “two steps removed” at most from a number associated with a terrorist organization, Obama confirmed. Currently, up to three steps can be followed. Meanwhile, alternatives to the current database will be explored by the intelligence community and the Attorney General, with Obama expecting options by March 28th, in what could include entrusting the database to a third-party. In the meantime, a judicial finding or “true emergency” will be required to access the existing database, with the NSA requiring explicit permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
As for those outside of America, Obama says that the DNI will now develop safeguards for people overseas, extending certain rights and protections formerly reserved to the American people to non-Americans. “Unless there is a compelling national security purpose” he said, “we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”
Still, gathering of information about foreign governments will continue, and “we will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective” Obama pointed out.
Left unaddressed, at least today, are some of the governments other more controversial programs, such as PRISM and the FISA Amendments Act section 702 which gives it its authority. We’ll also have to see how Congress will react to Obama’s proposals, given some of the changes to the NSA and programs in operation will require its approval before they can be enacted.
The questions around monitoring and privacy aren’t going away. “Given the pace of technological change,” Obama concluded, “we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time America has this debate.”