Obama to call for an end to NSA bulk data collection

The New York Times reported late yesterday evening that President Barack Obama will supposedly call for an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program, leaving data in the hands of phone companies:

The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that — if approved by Congress — would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials.

Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of  court order.
The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.

They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.

The reaction from most civil libertarians and other critics of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program is cautious optimism. They want to believe the Obama administration has shifted course on spying, but the devil remains in the details.

Any skepticism toward the plan is reasonable. President Obama has vigorously defended the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, and congressional intelligence committees slyly tried to push through legislation that would codify them into law.

The legislation proposed by the White House may sound good on the surface, but there are still some concerns that need to be addressed, like the standard by which intelligence agencies can obtain an individual’s phone records from their service provider:

The bill, titled the End Bulk Collection Act of 2014 and currently circulating on Capitol Hill, would prevent the government from acquiring “records of any electronic communication without the use of specific identifiers or selection terms,” some 10 months after the Guardian first exposed the bulk collection based on leaks by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

But the bill would allow the government to collect electronic communications records based on “reasonable articulable suspicion”, rather than probable cause or relevance to a terrorism investigation, from someone deemed to be an agent of a foreign power, associated with an agent of a foreign power, or “in contact with, or known to, a suspected agent of a foreign power.”

A draft of the bill acquired by the Guardian proposes the acquisition of such phone or email data for up to a year and would not necessarily require prior approval by a judge. Authorisation of the collection would come jointly from the US attorney general and director of national intelligence.

This sort of vague language could be ripe for abuse. Section 215 of the PATRIOT, the section through which the administration has claimed authority to build these programs, was written in a way that intelligence agencies could gain access to records of someone under investigation for terrorist activity. Yet, it’s been used to gain access to virtually every American’s phone records through blanket court orders.

It sounds good on the surface, and President Obama surely doesn’t mind headlines that say he is ending the domestic surveillance programs. After all, this is the one controversy that has hovered over his administration for the past year.

There are other legislative proposals, including the USA FREEDOM Act, that would address privacy rights and end the bulk data collection programs. There’s no indication that White House has reached out to congressional critics of domestic surveillance.

One has to wonder why the White House wouldn’t just work with critics to address the NSA programs through existing legislation rather than rolling out their own set of purported reforms.

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