In response to the piles of privacy issues exposed by Edward Snowden, President Obama has agreed to make a few tweaks. Picking what the New York Times calls “a middle ground,” Obama will announce in an 11 a.m. speech “that he is ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 telephone metadata program as it currently exists and move to a program that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata,” according to an anonymous official.
The changes will attempt to address two major questions about how the government uses the phone records of American citizens: Who holds onto the data and how can the NSA access it?
“As it currently exists” the NSA can get to the metadata — highly detailed records of phone numbers and networks, although not the calls themselves — with “reasonable, articulable suspicion” about terrorist ties. Under the new rules, judicial approval will be required “for queries and data mining,” as recommended by the post-Snowden presidential panel charged with offering suggestions for improvement.
Late last year, a U.S. District Court judge appointed by George W. Bush called the current program unconstitutional: “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval,” he ruled. (Oh, and: “The government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.”)
Obama will also “propose a new public advocate to represent privacy concerns at a secret intelligence court.”
As for where the data will be held, they haven’t figured that part out yet. The White House panel suggested the phone companies hang onto it instead of the government; as the Times reports, “The telecommunications firms, however, objected to being the repository of the information and no independent third party currently exists, so Mr. Obama will call for further study to decide what to do with the data.” Eric Holder and the Justice Department will have until March 28 to come up with something.
It’s a start.