WASHINGTON D.C — The US President Barack Obama delivered his Friday speech on January 17 at the Department of Justice to announce the reform to the National Security Agency (NSA).
Under the reform, the North-American President expects to curb NSA’s authority when it comes to the collection of personal data for spying purposes.
The internal programme Dishfire collects a vast quantity of mobile phone texts, around 20,000 every day, in order to create a massive database, which includes information about people’s travel plans, locations, credit card details and personal contacts. Besides that, the British spy agency GCHQ has made use of this NSA database to explore communications among ordinary people in the UK.
“The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe,” said Obama.
An immediate measure is the NSA’s request of court permission to access phone records that are collected. As a result, the NSA will no longer hold bulk data unwarrantedly for itself and investigators can only examine personal connections that are two steps removed from a target, instead of three.
A set of independent experts on intelligence would belong to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) which acts as a third party when mass spying schemes have to be considered. In this way, the prevention of national threats and the respect of civil liberties are expected to be balanced and over-reaching attitudes from USA institutions would not occur. However, the approval of this panel has to be agreed with by the majority of the Congress.
Obama also announced new privacy protections for non-Americans who “should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security” but it seems not to be certainly true. Likewise, American independent journalist Marcy Wheeler wrote on her blog that at least eight cases revealed abuses such as the spying of porn and phone sex habits of ideological opponents, even an ordinary US citizen.
Anyway, this presidential declaration of intent aims to solve precisely these excesses of US surveillance as well for non-Americans, including foreign leaders.
Last year’s news pointed out that the US had spied on the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The leak made tense the diplomatic ties between both countries. Nevertheless, the NSA reforms were welcomed by the Teutonic nation and Merkel’s spokesman has already stressed on the idea that the rights of foreign citizens must be always respected.
In fact, Obama admitted two days later in a speech on a German TV interview that bugging the Chancellor’s mobile phone had been a mistake and the reforms announced are sound endeavours to avoid such errors.
The NSA reforms announced by the US President is the official response to a long chain of events that started with the appearance of Edward J. Snowden in the public arena. This 30-year-old ex-NSA contractor leaked top-secret information about US spy policy, becoming the most important meddling in the core of the secretive US surveillance programmes.
Snowden firstly turned the spotlight onto the extent of how NSA operated in complicity with main technology companies to decrypt and delete privacy controls to collect massively metadata from the Internet.
The following files leaked revealed similar intrusions on mobile texts, tapping practices on fibre optic cables, eavesdropping on both internal and external communications of foreign embassies as well as in other states’ spokesmen gathered in international summits.
NSA abuses are the consequence of the evolution of US government’s post 9/11 electronic surveillance legislation, specifically the Bush era’s Patriot Act which was expanded through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2006.
The initial agreement that the electronic surveillance was needed to avoid terrorism attacks seems to be fading out or, at least, almost split the US population into two different positions. Forty-eight per cent of Americans supported the government’s phone metadata surveillance program while 47% opposed it.
These figures could provide an insight to what extent there is a controversial debate about the suitability of NSA policy in the US. Those who consider Snowden a hero for revealing the public intrusions into the private sphere would want to go beyond the current NSA reforms. On the other hand, those who are prone to keep the status quo in the interest of national security would accept the latest curb to NSA authority but never desire going beyond these reforms.
The former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin claimed that “there’s a trade-off here between acceptance of risk and protection of privacy.”
Regardless of any of these views, it is clear that there is a need to define the majority choice in our societies, to address the increasing complexity of keeping personal privacy at the same time as IT progressively covers any part of the reality and the national risks are multiple and diverse.
It is certainly a hazardous process when different institutional interests, even different political cultures —for instance, the US and Europe — collide to attempt to reach a consensus on that trade-off but, as any challenge, nothing important is easy to achieve.
Image Courtesy: U.S. Government, Released into the public domain¦ Wikimedia Commons