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One step forward, two steps back for NSA reform

130614174418-t-ts-how-hide-nsa-00000000-620x348By Simon Davies

The Obama’s administration’s much heralded reform program for the National Security Agency (NSA) should be viewed by the international community as a grave disappointment. Moreover, it may set the cause of privacy back by a decade.

While offering some notable concessions to the US Rule of Law, the President’s announcement earlier today provides almost no brake on the global surveillance operations engineered by the NSA over the past sixty years. Although Obama devoted a surprisingly large chunk of his speech to overseas sentiments, he offered little more than a PR strategy to allay the concern of government leaders.

While offering some notable concessions to the US Rule of Law, the President’s announcement earlier today provides almost no brake on the global surveillance operations engineered by the NSA over the past sixty years.”

The State Department will designate a senior officer to coordinate our diplomacy on issues related to technology and signals intelligence.

In terms of international relevance, Obama’s speech is a masterly work of circumvention. While it will doubtless be viewed in some quarters as evidence of a reformation in US thinking, the message between the lines is anything but promising:

“Moreover, I have directed that we take the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas. I have directed the DNI, in consultation with the Attorney General, to develop these safeguards, which will limit the duration that we can hold personal information, while also restricting the use of this information.”

This is the same DNI (Director of National Intelligence) who’s oversight of the NSA these past two decades remained mute over the agencies transgressions.

On a less glib note, Obama’s statement skirts the issue of overseas collection. It refers only to the possibility of exploring options to limit retention periods for that data. This implies that the global data collection apparatus will remain intact.

While constantly referring to the sanctity of “ordinary citizens” (presumably declared “ordinary” after the fact of collection) Obama chose to focus on protections for the heads of friendly governments:

“Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have made clear to the intelligence community 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.”

US privacy advocates are right to conditionally welcome some of Obama’s reforms, but they should take into account two critically important implications that the President avoided.

The first of these is the NSA’s intimate operational partnership with Britain’s SIGINT agency, GCHQ. Nothing in his reform package indicates a brake on the current arrangements which allow GCHQ to collect information on US persons.

The second key element is that the proposals appear to merely shift the current collection and retention of metadata from a centralised NSA operation to more of a European-style communications data arrangement that requires commercial entities to maintain a distributed retention. That arrangement in Europe has been deemed unlawful, but there is every chance the US will adopt it.

All things considered, the prospects for genuine intelligence reform at the global level are more bleak than they were 24 hours ago.