Obama in Washington on Friday. (AFP)
Washington, Jan. 17: President Obama, responding to a clamourous debate over the government’s broad surveillance practices, announced today that he will require intelligence agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before tapping into a vast storehouse of telephone data, and will ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.
In a much-anticipated speech that ranged from broad principles to technical details, Obama said he would end the vast collection of phone data as it exists today. He will also restrict the ability of the National Security Agency to throw a net well beyond the data of an individual target and collect unlimited numbers.
And the President said he would sharply restrict eavesdropping on the leaders of dozens of foreign allies, the disclosure of which ignited a diplomatic firestorm with friendly countries like Germany.
But Obama did not accept other recommendations that have been made to him on reining in surveillance, like requiring court approval for so-called national security letters, in which the government demands information on individuals from companies. That was a victory for the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, who argue that these letters are vital to investigations.
Seeking to balance the concerns of privacy advocates with those of the intelligence agencies, Obama insisted that the aggressive practices of the NSA did not constitute an abuse of its authority, and that in many cases they were necessary to protect national security.
But he said he was sympathetic to the arguments of those who say technology is enabling intelligence agencies to spy on people at home and abroad in a way that raises civil liberties concerns.
At the heart of the changes, spurred by the disclosure of surveillance practices by a former NSA contractor, Edward J. Snowden, will be an overhaul of a bulk data programme that has swept up many millions of records of Americans’ telephone calls, though not their content.
Obama made no mention of two of the recommendations from a panel that looked into surveillance that are of most pressing concern to Silicon Valley and the business community: that the NSA “not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable” commercial software, and that it move away from exploiting flaws in software to conduct cyberattacks or surveillance.
The President has been sharply criticised by companies that protest that the NSA’s practices are costing them billions of dollars in foreign sales to customers in Europe and Asia who fear that American products have been deliberately compromised by the agency.
Obama’s refusal to address the issue reflects a deep divide in the administration, with some intelligence officials complaining that without the ability to break encryption and create “back doors” to enter computer systems abroad and exploit flaws in software, the US would be unilaterally disarming at a moment of heightened cyberconflict.
This issue has not generated the kind of public outrage that the surveillance has. But technology executives say it is at the top of their agenda, and they are already trying to develop “NSA-resistant” products.
Meanwhile, from Germany to China, there is talk of boycotting some American hardware and cloud services that are viewed as compromised.
The President also proposed creating a panel of advocates on privacy and technology issues who would appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, but it raised questions. A senior official said the advocates would be called on only in “novel” cases, rather than in every case. Left unanswered is who would decide which cases are novel.