Surveillance Reforms: Obama's Specifics

President Obama called for broad changes to U.S. domestic surveillance policy on Friday, but what did he specifically propose?

Prompted by the leaks of Edward Snowden and Russia's decision to keep the former National Security Administration contractor despite U.S. pleas to hand him over, Obama took to the White House podium to announce that he's heard citizens' complaints and he's working on changes to the U.S. surveillance operation, which he had seen fit for review and modification even before Snowden absconded.

Among the calls for "transparency" and public "confidence" were a handful of concrete plans, broken down by the White House in a background document explaining what the president intends to do to achieve those broad-stroke benchmarks of a more open intelligence operation of which American citizens are less suspicious.

They are:

  • Releasing more information about surveillance programs. "I've directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible," Obama said. Those releases haven't come yet, but Obama did say he has ordered them.
  • Reforms to the PATRIOT Act. Obama said he would work with Congress to reform Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the basis for the National Security Agency's phone-metadata collection program.

    Section 215 allows the government to obtain pretty much anything it wants to, as long as it does so in connection with an investigation into terrorism or similar activities. It's unclear what Obama wants to change about the provision, but he suggested he and Congress could come up with "greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints on the use of this authority."

  • Opposition Advocates in Surveillance Courts A system of courts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is responsible for approving the government's requests for surveillance. In his press conference on Friday, President Obama noted concerns that judges only hear one side of the story, when reviewing those requests: the government's.

    To remedy that, Obama proposed adding an "adversary" to those courts, who would presumably argue against allowing a surveillance request to go through.

    "Specifically, we can take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns have an independent voice in appropriate cases by ensuring that the government's position is challenged by an adversary," Obama told reporters.

  • A Civil-Liberties Officer at NSA The NSA will add an in-house privacy cop, Obama said.

    "The NSA is taking steps to put in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, and released information that details its mission, authorities, and oversight," Obama said on Friday.

  • Surveillance Policies Posted Online. The administration will set up a website as a "hub" for information on surveillance policies, Obama announced.

    "The intelligence community is creating a website that will serve as a hub for further transparency, and this will give Americans and the world the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn't do, how it carries out its mission, and why it does so."

  • Outside Tech Panel Will Report on Capabilities President Obama has already met with tech CEOs to talk about intelligence-gathering capabilities, the White House announced, and Obama said he'll form an expert panel to review how technology has changed since surveillance laws took effect (just over a decade ago), how the government's spying capabilities have been enhanced, and what that all means. They'll give Obama an interim report in 60 days and a final report by the end of the year.

    "I am tasking this independent group to step back and review our capabilities - particularly our surveillance technologies," Obama said on Friday. "And they'll consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy - particularly in an age when more and more information is becoming public."

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