A few months ago, in response to Edward Snowden’s leaks, Obama put together a commission to
whitewash his surveillance misdeeds make recommendations for how to improve privacy protections in the Surveillance Age. Yesterday, they came out with a slew of recommendations. Conor has a good roundup:
The panel’s 46 recommendations, all implicit critiques of the way the NSA operates now, would rein in the agency in many of the ways civil libertarians have urged. The timing of the report is significant, since it comes just after a federal judge issued a ruling calling the NSA’s phone dragnet “almost Orwellian” and likely unconstitutional. In other words, despite surveillance state protestations that its programs are legal, unobjectionable, and subject to oversight by all three branches of government, assessments of the program after the Snowden leaks have now resulted in strong rebukes from a federal judge, numerous legislators, and now a committee formed by the president himself.
Some of the most significant reforms suggested:
The government’s storage of bulk metadata is a risk to personal privacy and civil liberty, and as a general rule, “the government should
not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons.” Following this recommendation would end the Section 215 collection of telephone-call records as now practiced.
The conversations Americans have with people overseas should have more protection.
There should be new limits on the ability of FISA courts or National Security Letters to compel third parties to turn over private business records.
Telephone companies and Internet providers should be able to reveal general information about the amount of data that the government is requesting.
Regular people in foreign countries should enjoy at least some protections against unconstrained NSA surveillance.
The NSA should not intentionally weaken encryption or exploit security flaws in commercial software that have not yet been made public.
The director of the NSA and the head of the U.S. military’s cyber command should not be the same person.
The secret court that grants FISA requests should be an adversarial proceeding, not one in which the government gets to make its arguments unopposed.
The big question going forward is this: will Obama do any of this? These recommendations were a pleasant surprise and the ACLU has endorsed them (although the EFF thinks they don’t go far enough and I’m inclined to trust their judgement). But I think they were an unpleasant surprise to Obama, who expected the report to say he was respecting our liberty just fine.
I’m sure Obama’s supporters — his few remaining supporters — will praise him for putting the commission together and acting on even a tiny fraction of the recommendations. But remember: none of this would be happening without Edward Snowden. Obama was perfectly happy to have things go on as they are. Or get worse.