Proposed Surveillance Reforms and Persistent Debates


By Tanya Silverman

The headquarters of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A week of analytical reflections has developed since President Barack Obama delivered his speech on Jan 17 about proposed NSA reforms. Since Edward Snowden’s initial leaks last year, we’ve experienced almost eight months of ongoing revelations and respective reactions regarding the NSA’s multifaceted spying programs.

President Obama announced certain reforms that he supports such as how bulk metadata will still be collected. Though rather than being stored by the NSA, it is to be held by independent third parties. The government will only be allowed to investigate such records via court orders, and individuals must be two steps removed from a terrorist suspect, rather than three. He also said that there will be a yearly panel where a broad array of advocates will meet to analyze security polices. Additionally, the US will stop spying on leaders of ally countries.

Still, new revelations regarding the NSA’s data-collection programs continue to unfold. The president delivered his speech a day after The Guardian revealed that the agency collects 200 million dollars international text messages daily and extracts people’s locations, contact networks, as well as credit card details. Each day, the NSA has the ability to access over 5 million missed-call alerts, information about 1.6 border crossings, plus details on over 800,000 financial transactions.

During the days surrounding the speech and story, USA Today and the Pew Research Center conducted a poll to determine Americans’ attitudes about the NSA practices. Results showed that out of 1,504 adults surveyed, 70 percent believed they should not have to sacrifice privacy for terrorism risks. Further, 45 percent responded that Snowden’s leaks have helped public interest, whereas 43 percent deny that claim.

An ample array of known NSA spying programs has come to light since Snowden’s initial whistle-blowing efforts in 2013. Some early accounts from June of last year included NSA court orders to collect millions of Verizon phone records, followed by information that the agency had direct access to search history, email content, file transfers, live chats and other content taken from Google, Facebook, and Apple. Reports have since surfaced on how the NSA spied on World of Warcraft players, gathered almost 5 billion cell phone location records daily, and tapped into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, among numerous other scandals.

Whether people are still shocked by each breaking story or have grown somewhat accustomed to hearing the rampant extent of the NSA, the aforementioned poll shows that at this point 53 percent of Americans disapprove of agency’s surveillance program.

As for the president’s recent speech, 73 percent of those who paid close attention responded that they were not convinced that the president’s promises would make much difference in protecting their privacy.

Aleecia McDonald, the Director of Privacy at The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, says that President Obama’s approach to data collection misses a crucial point in privacy protection as he still deems it acceptable to collect data in bulk to potentially use it later.

“The president just agreed with the view that data is collected about everyone, all the time, who are suspected of a crime or not, that the only limitation will be use,” she tells BTR.

McDonald draws on her prior research for Do Not Track–an internet feature that disables websites plugging third-party tracking for intents like advertising purposes–in that participants largely expected the mechanism to limit data collection (not just future use). She expresses reservations over private companies being asked to store data on behalf of the government and points out that such third parties may not be sufficiently regulated.

“Citizens expect the government not to collect data upon them unless they are suspected of a crime,” McDonald says.

Currently, the government is still collecting metadata like phone records, though the third party that would inherit the responsibility is yet to be decided. Phone companies are already resisting the assignment and Attorney General Eric H. Holder has a 60-day window to devise a strategy with suggestions.

The president’s NSA speech touched on the contesting elements of preserving individual privacy rights and protecting the country’s security. Gauging the balance between violating civil liberties versus curbing terrorist threats has been a significant issue all along.

McDonald brings up two court cases from last month. First, a federal judge in Washington, DC, ruled that the NSA measures are illegal and violate Fourth Amendment rights. Then another federal judge in New York ruled shortly after that data collection was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

“It wouldn’t shock me to see both decisions overturned and still have a split decision in two different appellate rulings,” she says, predicting a Supreme Court case to possibly follow at some point.

While she is interested in how the Supreme Court would rule, she cannot predict the outcome, and whether, by the time it actually reaches that judicial level, the same justices would be serving on the bench.

Privacy concerns are acknowledged, reforms are outlined, and surveillance reports continue, but plenty of uncertainties persist about the future of the NSA and how President Obama’s announcements will actually play out. Who will be the determined third party? What will the yearly panel deem significant in security discussions? Will the collection of bulk metadata ever be officially overturned?

The media will continue to publish NSA data-collection stories as they unravel, though no matter what outstanding figure of privacy intrusion each account will expose, fundamental security versus privacy debates will continue and we will have to judge what effect President Obama’s proposed reforms on balancing each protection will ensue.