Critics: Obama plan keeps NSA status quo

Getty Images

Privacy rights advocates and tech companies on Friday dismissed President Obama’s proposed overhaul of government surveillance as preserving the status quo.
 
They had wanted Obama to deliver a full-throated renouncement of the National Security Agency’s snooping practices and say he instead gave them half-measures that leave the programs virtually untouched.
           

ADVERTISEMENT
“Overall, the strategy seems to be to leave current intelligence processes largely intact and improve oversight to a degree,” wrote Alex Fowler and Chris Riley, top executives at Mozilla. “We’d hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more.
 
“Without a meaningful change of course, the Internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity.”
 
Obama called for several changes to surveillance in the speech, including new civil liberties protections at the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, limits to the National Security Agency’s ability to search phone records and more transparency at the agencies collecting information.
 
Critics said those suggestions are more flash than substance.
 
“Do these reforms really answer and respond to the totality of the problem and the need?” asked Ed Black, head of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents Google, Yahoo and other companies.
 
“I reluctantly have to say it’s not sufficient.”
 
Privacy advocates have aimed their strongest criticism at the NSA’s collection of data about on all phone calls in the United States. The effort to collect the so-called metadata, grounded in a provision of the Patriot Act, picks up details about numbers dialed, length of peoples’ calls and their frequency, but not the content of the calls.
 
Obama pushed reforms that would require NSA officials to get an order from the country’s secret surveillance court before checking the database. He said someone other than the government should ultimately hold the data but maintained “it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.”
 
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a critic of the NSA, said the collection of the data should be ended entirely. 

“It is not about who holds [the data],” Paul said.

Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) have been among the most vocal critics of the surveillance regime in the Senate. They said the president’s plan to end the government’s collection of phone records was a “major milestone” in the fight against digital surveillance programs.
 
Nonetheless, they said the president’s speech did not “include all the reforms we have sought.”

“The fight to protect liberty and increase security is far from over,” they added in the joint statement.
 
The three Democratic senators pledged to work with the president and other lawmakers to end federal agents’ snooping on Americans’ emails and establish additional reforms to the surveillance court.
 
Obama called for new protections for foreign citizens and limits to U.S. spying on foreign leaders, which have led to diplomatic headaches for the White House in recent months. 
 
Amnesty International Executive Director Steven Hawkins said those pledges were “insufficient” to end worldwide concern about mass surveillance.
 
“The big picture takeaway from today's speech is that the right to privacy remains under grave threat both here at home and around the world,” he said in a statement.
 
“President Obama’s surveillance adjustments will be remembered as music on the Titanic unless his administration adopts deeper reforms.”
 
Advocates criticized Obama for what he didn’t say as much as for what he did.
 
“What’s really telling here is the things the president didn’t actually address,” said Berin Szoka, president of the technology policy think tank TechFreedom. “He punted on a lot.”
 
For instance, he said, Obama made no mention of changing the legal rationale for searching the telephone records in the first place. The president said searches were permissible with the “reasonable suspicion” that an individual was connected to a terrorist, instead of “probable cause,” as is necessary for other crimes.
 
Obama also made no calls to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which governs the way officials can intercept emails during criminal investigations.
 
By ignoring the subject, “he missed an opportunity to demonstrate to the nation that he is serious about privacy reform and restoring trust in American companies,” said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a statement.
 
His silence on the issue, Szoka said, was “deafening.”