Obama curtails NSA’s phone snooping activities

United States President Barack Obama on Friday called for an end to the way the National Security Agency monitors and gathers data on telephone records of Americans as well as those of heads of states of the countries allies.

In a speech delivered at the Justice Department following months of controversy and public outcry over revelations of the NSA’s snooping activities, Obama said he wants a new approach to how the agency collects phone records and is taking action to protect the privacy of non-Americans as well.

This reaction to the Prism scandal is “in stark contrast” to the one in Canada, according to privacy rights advocate and University of Ottawa e-commerce law professor, Michael Geist.

He said Canadian officials have remained relatively silent on the government’s own surveillance activities.

Obama called for a “transition that will end the…bulk metadata program as it currently exist and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata,” a report on the U.S. daily Washington Post said.

This also meant an end to the so-called “back door searches” and an assurance that the “government does not read Americans’ emails or other communications without a warrant,” Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich, said in a joint statement.

Obama also said that U.S. intelligence operatives “will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with terrorist organizations instead of three.”

Obama also directed the attorney general to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court in assuring that during the transition period, the NSA database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of an emergency.

He asked Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and intelligence officials to submit a plan that will detail how control of the information can be taken away from the government before March 28 – the date that the program is supposed to be reauthorized by FISA.

As to how bulk phone records would be kept, Obama said either telephone companies or a third party could retain them. Both options, he said, pose problems including privacy and legal concerns.

Apart indignation from privacy advocates, revelations of NSA’s snooping activities also threatened the reputation and business numerous U.S.-based technology companies that were reported to have provided customer information to the agency.

Following the lead of companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter, U.S. telecom giants such as Verizon and AT&T announced plans to release regular reports on the number of law enforcement requests they receive for customer information.

Reaction in Canada has been very different, said Geist.

For instance, he said, Canadian government officials have said very little about Canada’s surveillance activities despite reports that the country’s intelligence agency has been cooperating with the NSA in spying operations.

“In fact, the government seems to have moved the opposite direction, by adopting a lower threshold for warrants seeking metadata than is required for standard warrants in Bill C-13,” Geist said in a recent blog.

He said Canadian telecom companies also “remain secretive” about their participation in surveillance activities and there are no transparency reports or public indications of their willingness to disclose customer information without a court order.

Obama’s measures were relatively limited, according to a report by the newswire service Reuters. For instance, it noted, the president did not actually give specific guidance on who should store culled phone information in the future.

The president did not offer a specific proposal for who should actually store culled bulk data.

Media outlets also reported that the NSA gathers as many as 200 million text messages a day from around the world and has installed software in some 100,000 computers which which transmit radio waves and allows the agency access to the machines even if they are not connected to the Internet.

A review panel appointed by Obama had shed some questions on the usefulness of keeping metadata phone records. It found that while the program produced some leads for counter-terrorists work, the information were not decisive in a single case.

The president also reiterated that actions by former NSA security contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed the agencies surveillance activities last year, had jeopardized intelligence activities.

He said Snowden’s disclosure has “often shed more heat than light” and has revealed “methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in way that we may not fully understand for years to come.”

Nestor E. Arellano
Nestor E. Arellano
Toronto-based journalist specializing in technology and business news. Blogs and tweets on the latest tech trends and gadgets.

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