17 Jan 2014

Obama to curb NSA spying on phone data

President Barack Obama says he will put a stop to the US intelligence agency’s mass storage of Americans’ phone records, and orders an end to indiscriminate spying on friendly foreign allies.

Key points of proposed reforms
– NSA will no longer be allowed to store and access US citizens’ telephone data
– Database will be stored by third party, and can only be accessed after judge’s permission
– Spies can only access details of contact that is two, not three, steps away from a suspect
Decision to spy on friendly foreign leaders to be made by “my senior national security team
– More transparency on surveillance, including independent panel that could act in secret courts

President Obama said his recommendations heralded a big change in the way telephone metadata is handled by the National Security Agency (NSA).

He said that the government should not be responsible for holding bulk telephone data, and that he would order an immediate change so that government officials would have to seek permission from a judge to access the database.

An advisory panel recommended in December that bulk telephone data should be controlled by a third party, such as telephone companies, rather than the government. However Mr Obama did not specify who should store future data.

The president’s speech follows a joint report by Channel 4 News and the Guardian which revealed how the UK and US spied on 200m text messages a day.

In a wide-ranging speech, taking into account America’s history of surveillance, Mr Obama said that it was essential for those in power to have restraints in place. He said: “Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.”

Obama on Snowden

However he insisted that the US intelligence community was not “cavalier about the civil liberties of our fellow citizens”.

Mr Obama also said that the leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is currently in Russia and faces felony charges in the US, set a dangerous precedent.

“Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr Snowden’s actions or motivations,” he said. “Our nation’s defence depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets.

“If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”

The president has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence community to report back to him before 28 March on how to preserve the necessary capabilities of the programme, without the government holding the metadata.

Referring to the emergency law passed after the 11 September attacks – section 215 of the patriot act, which allows the NSA to collect metadata on every phone call in the US – the US president said that some civil liberties were compromised in the rush to try and respond to “very real threats”. But he said the worst surveillance excesses of this period had been curbed.

Mr Obama also said that new technology allowed more far-reaching powers of surveillance, and required a debate to take place. “The power of new technology means there are fewer constraints on what we can do,” he said. “That forces us to ask questions about what we should do.”

Read more: The NSA faces reform. But what about Britain’s GCHQ?

President Barack Obama says he will put a stop to the US intelligence agency's mass storage of Americans' phone records and also orders an end to indiscriminate spying on friendly foreign allies.

The intelligence committees of both the senate and house had signaled that they believed current telephone metadata arrangements, under which the data is collected and held by the NSA for five years, should remain in place.

But both the senate and house judiciary committees have approved bills that would eliminate domestic metadata collection entirely.

The presidential advisory panel that submitted its recommendations to President Obama late last year said collecting telephone metadata – which shows which numbers call which other numbers, and the time and length of calls – should be taken out of NSA control and handed to a third party, such as the phone companies themselves.

Sea change?

Mr Obama’s first reaction to the Snowden disclosures was that America had a “right balance” between the desire for information and the need to respect Americans’ privacy.

But there was a huge diplomatic storm over the revelation that the US and UK spied on foreign allies mobile phones and communications, including the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After that, he called for “additional constraints” on American surveillance practices.

Privacy advocates have also been calling for greater protections for Americans’ constitutional right to privacy. Some privacy advocates will doubtless be pleased by Obama’s plan but other NSA critics may say the president did not go far enough.

“While we welcome the president’s acknowledgement that reforms must be made, we warn the president not to expect thunderous applause for cosmetic reforms. We demand more than the illusion of reform,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a civil liberties advocacy organisation.