Obama restricts NSA telephone metadata collection program, calls for more changes

obama announces overhaul nsa telephone data collection screen shot 2014 01 17 at 11 15 39 am

Seven months after the first disclosures from Edward Snowden went public, President Barack Obama announced Friday a list of “concrete and substantial reforms” to the way the United States conducts its surveillance operations. Changes include extending privacy protections to citizens in foreign countries, limiting the secrecy surrounding the use of National Security Letters, and reigning in the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of telephone metadata.

NSA telephone metadata collection

The most significant changes for Americans concern the NSA’s telephone metadata collection program. Obama reiterated that the program, carried out under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, “does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans” and has repeatedly been renewed by Congress. But he admitted that “ it has never been subject to vigorous public debate.”

“I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata,” he said.

Effective immediately, NSA analysts will no longer be permitted to “query” its database of telephone metatada without first receiving permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). And queries must now be limited to two steps from a “phone number associated with a terrorist organization,” Obama said. Earlier limits restricted queries to three steps from a targeted number, a jump many critics saw as overly broad.

Moreover, Obama said he may follow a presidential review board’s recommendation that the federal government turn over storage of telephone metadata to a third party, but admitted that doing so could cause new problems.

“The Review Group recommended that our current approach be replaced by one in which the providers or a third party retain the bulk records, with the government accessing information as needed. Both of these options pose difficult problems,” Obama said. “Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns. On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single, consolidated database would be carrying out what is essentially a government function with more expense, more legal ambiguity, and a doubtful impact on public confidence that their privacy is being protected.”

Obama has asked intelligence officials and the attorney general to submit recommendations for how to properly transfer storage of the telephone metadata database to a third party before the collection program comes up for reauthorization on March 28.

National Security Letters

Obama also announced plans to limit the FBI’s use of National Security Letters, which often forbid recipients from disclosing that they had received the letter due to national security concerns.

“I have … directed the Attorney General to amend how we use National Security Letters so this secrecy will not be indefinite, and will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy,” Obama said. He also plans to allow companies, like Google or Facebook, to “make public more information than ever before about the orders they have received to provide data to the government.”

Limit foreign intelligence gathering

Obama also issued a presidential directive that he says “will clearly prescribe what we do, and do not do, when it comes to our overseas surveillance.”

“In terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, US intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: counter-intelligence; counter-terrorism; counter-proliferation; cyber-security; force protection for our troops and allies; and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion,” Obama said. “Moreover, I have directed that we take the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas.”

Additional efforts will be taken to ensure that “unless there is a compelling national security purpose … we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”

Review technological capabilities

Finally, Obama has ordered “a comprehensive review of big data and privacy” by a group that includes both government officials and “technologists and business leaders,” which will “look at how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security.”

More work to do

While Obama says that the reforms announced today “will point us in a new direction,” he admits that “more work will be needed in the future.”

“One thing I’m certain of: this debate will make us stronger. And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead,” Obama said. “It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard, and the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating. No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account. But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity.”

What do you think of Obama’s efforts to curtail surveillance activities? Tell us down below.


Automakers are spending billions on self-driving technology people are afraid of

Automakers are spending billions of dollars on developing the technology that will power self-driving cars, but research shows consumers have no interest in giving up control. Will they ever recoup their investment?
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (March 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in March, from Buster Scruggs to Roma

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.

Get your hands (and ears) on Apple’s new AirPods — here’s where to find them

Apple's new AirPods with wireless charging are the latest version of the much-loved wireless earbuds. Unfortunately, they aren't widely available yet. Here's where you can find them right now, and where they will show up soon.

You can now use the innovative Red Hydrogen One on Google Fi

The Red Hydrogen One was first announced in 2017 and has been delayed a few times since then. Now, the Red Hydrogen One is finally available, featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage.
Product Review

There’s almost nothing bad to say about the Mi Mix 3, but you still shouldn’t buy it

The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 is good-looking, really well made, packed with features, and is a powerful, modern, desirable smartphone. But you probably shouldn’t buy it. Why? Nothing wrong with the device itself, but Xiaomi itself is mostly to…

Apple’s AirPower wireless charging mat may be coming soon

At its September event in 2017, Apple unveiled the AirPower, a new wireless charging mat that will allow you to charge multiple devices at one time. It has not yet been released. Here's everything we know about the device so far.

The best Apple AirPods alternatives for Android, Windows, and iOS devices

Apple AirPods might be new and improved, but they aren't the only game in town. Other makers are offering their own truly wireless earbuds, with attractive features. These are the best AirPod alternatives on the market today.

Here are 20 portable tech gadgets you’ll want to use every day

If you're looking for portable tech to keep you charged up while on the go (or for some great small gift ideas), we've rounded up 20 must-have gadgets. You'll find everything from a mini gaming controller to a folding Bluetooth keyboard.

The latest Google Doodle lets you create Bach-like music of your own

Google is celebrating the life of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and to that end the company has released a new Google Doodle that allows you to create Bach-like melodies and harmonies of your own.

Amazon’s new Kindle has an adjustable light and costs less than $100

Amazon has taken the wraps off of a new Kindle model, which boasts a number of great features and comes at a very affordable price. Perhaps the best thing about the new Kindle is that the device has an adjustable.

Apple iPad Air vs. iPad (2018): Which Apple tablet is right for you?

The new iPad Air replaces the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but it doesn't pack quite the same punch. It is a fair bit cheaper, starting at $500, but it's a lot more expensive than Apple's 9.7-inch iPad which starts at $330. If you're shopping for…
Social Media

Facebook Messenger adds quoted replies to better organize group chats

Facebook is rolling out a feature that should help make group chats a whole lot more organized. The feature allows you to reply to specific messages within a group chat, so others will be able to tell what you're replying to.