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President Obama defends NSA telecoms surveillance

The Sons of Liberty would be raising a glass (but not a cup of tea) in celebration. Paul Revere’s secret surveillance group against the dastardly British during the War of Independence set the fledgling United States down the path of spies and espionage – activities that continue to divide opinion to this very day.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama announced a number of reforms to the way the country’s National Security Agency operates, following growing revelations about the extent of its telecoms surveillance.

He ordered the NSA to relinquish control of the telephony metadata it collects to the providers (telcos) or a third party. Details remain unclear, but the NSA has 60 days to develop a revised structure for its Dishfire program. Congress will then vote to reauthorize various intelligence practices, including the controversial Dishfire program.

Intelligence agencies will also have to seek legal approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court before querying the NSA database for information on a potential suspect. But he was at pains to point out that the US already adheres to higher standards than certain other governments: “No-one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account.”

The President didn’t go as far as some had hoped and order Dishfire and related activities to be suspended, saying: “I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved. Having said that, I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive, bulk collection programs in the future.”

He added:

“The United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to US companies or US commercial sectors.”

He declined to address many of the important recommendations that his presidential panel had highlighted. One such recommendation was for the NSA to promise not to subvert, undermine or weaken commercial available encryption – but this was not addressed by the president.

But he did promise to look into the wider issue of Big Data and privacy, setting up a new review group. What that will actually achieve though is anyone’s guess. A report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) last August cited the Cloud Security Alliance as saying that US cloud computing companies could lose $21-$35bn in global contracts over the next three years as a result of customer fears over NSA snooping. The report also revealed that 36 per cent of US residents surveyed said the NSA leaks have made it more difficult for them to do business outside of the country. Whilst the US is set to lose out, Asia and Europe will gain.

“The president’s speech was empathetic, balanced and thoughtful, but insufficient to meet the real needs of our globally connected world and a free Internet," said Ed Black, CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which includes Sprint and T-Mobile amongst its membership. “We’re disappointed he did not completely halt the collection and analysis of bulk metadata.”

The President’s comments were welcomed, though, by the CTIA, the US mobile trade association, in particular the balance between national security interests and civil liberties. Jot Carpenter, VP of Government Affairs, said that his association “continues to believe that this balance can be achieved without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.”

Telcos appear to be still uncertain about the length of time they will have to retain user metadata, which government agencies will have access to it and exactly what legal protections they might or might not have. No comment from the TIA, however.

The Global Government Surveillance Reform group – comprising AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo – issued a joint statement saying:

“The commitments outlined by President Obama represent positive progress on key issues including transparency from the government and in what companies will be allowed to disclose, extending privacy protections to non-US citizens, and FISA court reform. Crucial details remain to be addressed on these issues, and additional steps are needed on other important issues, so we’ll continue to work with the Administration and Congress to keep the momentum going and advocate for reforms.”

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