Several of the key surveillance reforms unveiled by US President Barack Obama face complications that could muddy the proposals’ lawfulness, slow their momentum in the US Congress and saddle the government with heavy costs and bureaucracy, legal experts say.
Despite Obama’s plans to shift the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass storage of Americans’ bulk telephone records elsewhere, telephone companies do not want the responsibility, and the government could face privacy and structural hurdles in relying on any other entity to store the data.
Constitutional analysts also question the legal underpinning of Obama’s commitment to setting up an advisory panel of privacy experts to intervene in some proceedings of the secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA’s data mining operations. Obama has asked Congress to set up such a panel, but senior federal judges already oppose the move, citing practical and legal drawbacks.
The secret courts now operate with only the government making its case to a federal judge for examining someone’s telephone data. Civil libertarians have called for a voice in the room that might offer the judge an opposing view.
“The devil is in the details of how the government collects and retains phone records, and I think we’re going to see pretty quickly the lack of specificity behind some of the president’s promises,” American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero said.
The surveillance programs have been under fire since former NSA analyst Edward Snowden absconded with an estimated 1.7 million documents related to surveillance and other NSA operations, giving the documents to journalists around the world. Revelations in the documents sparked a furor over whether Americans have been giving up privacy protections in exchange for intelligence-gathering on terrorism.
The revelations about US surveillance programs have also damaged US relations with key allies, including Germany, following reports that the NSA had monitored communications of European citizens — even listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
Obstacles to enacting Obama’s plans are expected to mount quickly as administration officials and legislators grapple over what sort of entity will oversee the calling records swept up by the NSA. Obama ordered the US Department of Justice and intelligence officials to devise a plan within the next two months.
Privacy advocates also questioned the administration’s silence on what it will do with hundreds of millions of telephone records, at minimum, that are now kept on file in government inventories.
Citing the NSA’s plans to build a vast data storage facility in Utah, Romero said: “There was nothing in the president’s speech about what’s already in the government’s hands.”
Obama’s task force, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, had recommended cutting the time that the NSA could retain private records from five to two years. However, Obama’s proposals do not address the issue of duration, leaving those records still in NSA control for the foreseeable future.
Who or what takes over the storage of private telephone records is also at issue. Telephone company executives and their lawyers have bluntly told administration officials they do not want to become the NSA’s data minders. Cellular industry executives prefer the NSA keep control over the surveillance program and would only accept changes if they were legally required and spelled out in legislation.