Obama's NSA surveillance limits enforced (but are they even listening?)

The first stages of President Obama's overhaul of NSA data collection have gone into action, placing limits on how easy it is for security services to monitor individuals, though new insider claims suggest only a fraction of the surveillance believed to be underway was actually taking place. For a start, if the NSA requires phone records, it must now get Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) approval on each occasion, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper writes.

The limit on how far the NSA can cast its net around potential suspects has also been implemented. Previously, the NSA could look at up to three degrees of separation from the core target; that's now been limited to just two degrees instead.

However, the monitoring problem in and of itself may have been overblown, some are now claiming. Rather than the blanket surveillance of data from every call going on in the US, insiders familiar with the program now allege that in fact only around 20-percent of calls are logged.

That's down to the rise in cellphones, which are tougher to monitor in ways that fit with the NSA's original legal permissions, sources tell the WSJ. Landlines had been relatively straightforward to tap, one person said, but an increasing proportion of cellphones and cellular providers had meant new legal issues, such as how to strip location information from the raw data, have arisen.

In fact, most cellphone records aren't covered by the NSA's legal orders to phone companies, the insiders point out, supposedly leaving the NSA at an effective loss to track information to the extent that many believe the agency to be doing.

Still in question is how the NSA and others in the security community will address President Obama's other points of reform, notably establishing an external organization to be entrusted with storing the raw metadata, and how safeguards against monitoring will be extended to non-Americans overseas. Those points will be the subject of a review due before the end of March.