US President Barack Obama banned US eavesdropping on the leaders of close friends and allies on Friday, and began reining in the vast collection of US citizens’ telephone data in a series of reforms triggered by whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations.
In a major speech, Obama took steps to reassure US citizens and foreigners alike that the US will take into account privacy concerns that arose after former US spy contractor Snowden’s damaging disclosures about the monitoring activities of the National Security Agency (NSA).
“The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe,” he said.
Obama promised that the US will not eavesdrop on the heads of state or government of close US friends and allies.
The step was designed to smooth over frayed relations between, for example, the US and Germany after reports surfaced last year that the NSA had monitored the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance,” Obama said.
The steps Obama put in motion are aimed at adapting regulations to keep up with rapid changes in surveillance technology that permit NSA analysts to monitor private communications globally.
Among the list of reforms, Obama called on the US Congress to establish an outside panel of privacy advocates for the secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court that considers terrorism cases.
While the speech was designed to address concerns that US surveillance has gone too far, Obama’s measures were relatively limited.
One of the biggest changes will be an overhaul of the government’s handling of bulk telephone “metadata.” He said the program will be ended as it currently exists.
In addition, Obama said the US the government will need a judicial review before the database, which lists millions of telephone calls, can be queried unless there is a true emergency.
Obama also decided that communications providers would be allowed to share more information with the public about government requests for data.