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Surveillance Report Blasts NSA, Recommends Overhaul

Surveillance Report Blasts NSA, Recommends Overhaul

In its report on the NSA's controversial surveillance activities, a White House task force recommended an overhaul of both the NSA and FISA. However, it also recommended that some things stay more or less the same. Under certain circumstances, for example, the government should be permitted to run secret spy programs such as the bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

By Richard Adhikari
12/19/13 2:43 PM PT

A task force set up by President Obama to review the United States National Security Agency's surveillance activities has suggested a list of what it calls "significant" reforms, including restrictions on spying.

Among the recommendations:

  • changes in surveillance of both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens to protect their privacy;
  • changes to metadata storage practices;
  • issuance of National Security Letters used by the FBI to compel access to private records;
  • promotion of transparency and accountability; and
  • an overhaul of the NSA and the secretive FISA Court, which has been accused of pretty much rubber-stamping NSA requests for surveillance warrants.

The report makes 46 recommendations in all.

Damning With Faint Praise

Responses to the report have been lukewarm at best.

"The report is a prodigious effort, thorough and wide-ranging," remarked Katherine Stern, senior counsel at the Constitution Project.

However, "despite all the well-meaning affirmation of principles," she added, "the report leaves the door open for more secret domestic spying."

The report is "a step in the right direction, but I feel the NSA has violated the Constitution so much that the only real solution is shutting it down -- though that's optimistic," Pete Ashdown, founder and CEO of XMission, told TechNewsWorld.

"What is lacking is an end to unwarranted dragnet surveillance, which we believe represents a clear violation of fundamental human and constitutional rights," argued Matthew T. Simons, director of social and economic justice at Thoughtworks.

"While there are necessary reforms the report does not fully address -- such as concrete protection for privacy rights globally -- we believe this report is a major step forward, and demonstrates the breadth of support for reform," Jake LaPerruque, a Fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told TechNewsWorld.

The Maddening Power of Metadata

Recommendation 11 of the report suggests the government should be able to conceal programs -- such as the bulk telephony metadata program allowed under Section 215 of the Patriot Act -- if doing so would serve a compelling government interest, and if revealing their existence to U.S. enemies would substantially impair their efficacy.

That doesn't provide any protection against abuse at all, and the recommendation "raises the possibility that the government could operate another secret program of the same magnitude as the bulk call record program," the Constitution Project's Stern told TechNewsWorld.

"Because the report condones that possibility as lawful, we remain concerned that [it] does not cure the problem of over-collection of Americans' personal data," she said.

The report recommends bulk storage of telephony metadata be transferred from the government to private providers or a private third party, and that the government not be permitted to collect and store metadata for data mining or for making future queries.

"Nothing we have learned this year or that we understand about our technology infrastructure gives us any confidence that giant centralized databases of personal information -- whoever owns and operates them -- will not be abused by powerful interests, be it the NSA or other agencies or private corporations," ThoughtWorks' Simons told TechNewsWorld.

Baby Steps

The chances of being killed in a terrorist attack in the U.S. are "vanishingly small," and "our government is deciding on our behalf that it is better to violate the 4th Amendment than to bear an infinitesimal risk of harm," Simons said. "We reject that choice."

On the other hand, targeted surveillance based on probable cause with strict governance and transparency has a role to play in any society, he agreed.

That said, there is "an urgent need to begin the process of repairing the damage that has been caused by the overreach of the national security complex," Simon maintained. However, "haste can sometimes translate into incomplete or flawed solutions."


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