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Surveillance

Obama plans to tweak NSA spy programs

Two parallel plans to reform the NSA aim to regain US public trust in the government. Rights activists think neither of the plans go far enough, even as intelligence experts worry about placing limits on surveillance.

During his trip to meet with European leaders, US President Barack Obama said he got the message: he announced plans to scale back the amount of data stored by the National Security Agency. He said he would present reforms to the US Justice Department that would include ending the bulk collection and storage of telephone records.

"I'm confident that it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that it addresses some of the concerns that people have raised," Obama said of the plan.

Looming deadline

Who is calling whom from where? And how long did they talk? No telephone conversation is ever completely anonymous after the Patriot Act came into law following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. But it wasn't until documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the NSA's metadata collection program that anger grew among the general public about the widespread surveillance. In January, Obama vowed to reform the spy agency and set Friday, March 28, as the deadline.

Human rights groups have deemed the planned reforms a partial success. Brett Max Kaufman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the plans were certainly going in the right direction.

"We think this is a really important first step - for the government to finally come around to the view that it is unnecessary and unwise to collect the phone records of all Americans in bulk," he told DW.

Who holds the data?

The plan suggests that the NSA itself no longer store the data on Americans' phone calls. Instead it calls for the security agency to rely on records maintained by telecommunication companies, which are already required to retain that information for 18 months. Intelligence authorities would then only be able to access the telephone data after court approval. A White House statement, however, said the NSA would be able to access the data without a court order in "an emergency situation."

A projection of a text on the face of a woman 
(Photo: REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski)

Obama's and the House's reform plans differ on what measures the NSA must take to access phone records

In addition to the president's plans, the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee also announced a second bill to reform the NSA this week. John Boehner, a Republican and the Speaker of the House, praised the reforms the bill suggested.

"The bill represents a start of a bipartisan conversation about how we maintain our capabilities to thwart attacks while addressing privacy and civil liberties concerns that many Americans have," he said in Washington.

Judiciary approval

But many civil rights activists disagree with his assessment of the second proposal.

"The main difference - and the main failing of the House proposal - is that it does not require any judicial approval before the government goes to the phone companies to obtain the records," Kaufman said. "That's one of the most crucial parts of the reform that needs to happen."

Kaufman thinks neither set of plans goes far enough. That's because the Patriot Act gives US intelligence agencies far more ways to pry into citizens' private lives than only collecting telephone data - including some data that, according to Kaufman, is much more sensitive.

"The data reflect where we go, the people we know, churches and political parties we belong to, how we spend our money, doctors we see, whether we are gun owners," he said. "There are all kinds of records that are covered by the same statute."

Small tweaks

Matt Simons, director of social and economic justice at the technology company ThoughtWorks, thinks Obama's reform plans are little more than cosmetic changes that do not address the many ways the NSA has violated people's privacy.

"To say that making this small tweak makes everything OK is insulting to everyone's intelligence," he told DW. "What about prisons, what about tapping undersea cables? What about flying surveillance drones that mimic cell phone towers so that all communications can be collected from unsuspecting citizens? Nobody is talking about all of those abuses and all of the reforms that need to happen to address them."

Miniature figures being watched by an eye with a US flag in the background
(Photo: Imago)

Many lawmakers in the US are looking at ways to reform the NSA

Simons said he hoped the plans presented by Obama and Congressional groups this week would mark the beginning of a new approach to surveillance, since the current plans will not be enough to win back the trust of Americans - and others - in the Obama administration.

"We are talking about a reform that provides a little bit of protection to US persons' data," he said. "It doesn't do anything about the warrant of surveillance on international communications."

Neither the reforms announced by the White House nor the US Congress would increase privacy protections for non-American citizens.

The "Washington Post" newspaper reported recently that NSA data collection outside of the United States was much more widespread than previously thought. According to the newspaper, the spy agency developed a program that is able to save an entire country's voice communications. The system, which is called "Mystic," is reportedly being used in one country - which country that is, however, hasn't been made public.

Merkel frowning and holding a cell phone
(Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the few non-Americans who has been promised the NSA won't spy on her

No clear-cut rules to surveillance

While human rights and data protection activists criticize the reforms for not doing enough, intelligence experts warn they go too far. Fred Fleitz, an analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former CIA employee, said he was disappointed by the plans.

"I'm very concerned about the president's proposal because this would be a major roadblock, to have all this legal paperwork prepared every time the NSA had to query this database," said Fleitz. That, he added, would greatly lessen the database's use.

Data collection systems are often misunderstood, Fleitz explained. "These programs and the ways that they have been used to advance US national security are complicated - it is not always clear-cut where they establish the lead that may have helped us find a terrorist or identify a drug dealer," he said.

90 more days

Currently, it is unclear which of the two sets of rival reform plans will end up being enacted into law, as there is also a third possibility, Fleitz said.

"There's a competing proposal to shut the program down altogether," he said, adding that while neither the president nor Congressional leadership support such a plan, there are lawmakers who would push for shuttering the NSA. "I don't think the momentum is behind them, but it's hard to tell."

Despite the president's Friday deadline, lawmakers still need time to hash out which reform plan - or what combination of the plans - will win out. Until they can do that, the Obama administration has called for a continuation of the current surveillance programs for another 90 days.

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