Home Opinion President Addresses Intelligence Surveillance Reforms

President Addresses Intelligence Surveillance Reforms


Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

On Friday (January 17), President Barack Obama addressed the nation and the world regarding US signals intelligence procedures amidst heightened privacy activism and international diplomatic tensions with allies. The reforms were based in part on a lengthy report by a review group on intelligence and communications technologies.

President Obama quotes from his speech highlight the issue and point out some of the changes:

“The combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats. It’s a powerful tool. But the government collection and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse.”

“Surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws.”

“We are expected to protect the American people; that requires us to have capabilities in this field.”

“It is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us. We won’t abuse the data we collect…Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions…It depends on the law to constrain those in power.”

“…a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities…will strengthen executive branch oversight…ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances, our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of American companies, and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties.”

“We will reform programs and procedures in place to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.”

“I’m directing the director of national intelligence, in consultation with the attorney general, to annually review for the purposes of declassification any future opinions of the court with broad privacy implications and to report to me and to Congress on these efforts.”

“I’m asking the attorney general and DNI to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search and use in criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702 [of FISA].”

“I’ve therefore directed the attorney general to amend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.”

“I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future.”

“I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata.”

“Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization.”

“The directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary folks.”

“We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies or U.S. commercial sectors.”

“In terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, U.S. intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: counterintelligence; counterterrorism; counterproliferation; cybersecurity; force protection for our troops and our allies; and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion.”

“Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.”

“Heads of state and government with whom we work closely and on whose cooperation we depend should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners, and the changes I’ve ordered do just that.”

“We are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity.”

“Those values make us who we are.”

These reforms are in many ways quite substantial and represent a responsible attempt to balance security and privacy rights of American citizens. States like Russia and China could learn a lot following this example and instituting meaningful changes that empower their people’s personal and private security by adopting more humane value systems. The President’s reforms are a positive start.

One other solution in the security-privacy intelligence debate has been suggested by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, is to simply encourage the people to “encrypt everything.”

This is a brilliant recommendation to those that want to protect privacy on their own terms and their own initiative. Taking such a prescription is not only for those concerned with the National Security Agency but also every government on the planet; many of which are increasing their SIGINT and decryption capabilities; particularly: China and Russia, but also such states as Iran or North Korea. Such foreign state intelligence services, combined with corrupt leadership, will more and more prey on American citizen financial profiles, identities and information with or without criminal overlords in those states. On the other hand, the US will, even if it obtained personal financial information, not use it and are under many more restrictions and regulations to discard it or not use it to the US advantage information is obtained from the net.

Some companies have increased encryption as a response to the NSA leaks of personal metadata and among others. Private companies initially bore the brunt of the blame- Google leading the charge of alledged draconian monitoring programs. Moreover, due to contracting and aiding US government intelligence programs and themselves accused with involvement by the leaks and scandals. Google has already encrypted its main searches, following secure search models available. Microsoft has run a campaign of lesser private sector data tracking than Google, with their “Scroogled” ad campaign promotion of their email service.

What proliferation of advanced encryption practices mean overseas could be even more inspiring for non-US citizens. Eric Schmidt believes that “there’s a real chance that we can eliminate censorship and the possibility of censorship in a decade.”

In the most brutal or even mild authoritarian regimes with internet access, propelling personal encryption barriers means greater liberty and protection from their intrusive and oppressive foreign leadership. For the US, this means less of the obvious and occasional political targeting abuses that are sure happen more frequently in the future, should political leaders have total access capability to all or nearly all personal information of American citizens and their digital activities.

Schmidt’s idea is a leveling the playing field or shortening the gap, not a full on neutralization of government’s decryption capabilities. Thus, the point is to make it more difficult so that governments must target the people of interest and legitimate threats without the temptation of mass social surveillance and scandal. Additionally, further protocols will be needed over time as well. The issue of security and privacy has not been fully muted with the President’s modest reforms; and will remain an ongoing political debate in the American consciousness.



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