Word is circulating today around the new proposal from the Obama administration that will overhaul the mass collection of data by the National Security Agency. In a legislative proposal that is claimed to have far-reaching changes for the current NSA data collection program, the goal is to limit the collection of data to individuals who are suspected of terrorist activity. For some privacy advocates the Obama administration’s proposal to overhaul NSA data collection practices might come as a relief, but the details and language used are still ambiguous.
In 2013, NSA’s program was revealed to the public when whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed that the government was collecting and storing most landline calling information and cell phone data. The collection of data by the NSA was part of a surveillance program established in 2006 by the Bush administration in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Previously classified, the NSA program, also known as the 215 program, is set to expire on Friday. Although new restrictions on the collection of data are presently being put on the table, the current program, as it exists, has been approved for renewal and will continue to run for at least one more 90-day cycle, while the new legislation is worked out.
Under the new proposal, Obama’s NSA overhaul would end the practice of collecting mass data, but the specifics of the proposal are ambiguous. While the NSA’s access to call records would be limited to calling times, duration, and telephone numbers, it expands the access that the agency previously had to calling records in general. Even though U.S officials say that only 30 percent of calling data might be collected, the new legislation will allow for the agency to gain access to the data and information of all individuals who are within two “hops” or degrees of separation from the person suspected of having a link to terrorist connections. Essentially, the NSA can access the related records of all the contacts within the suspected persons phone, and all of the records of the contacts of the first set as well.
Phone companies would be required to standardize their data and make it available on a continual basis, holding calling records for all customers for 18 months, which was a reduction from the previous 5 year minimum. The new proposal will allow the NSA to seek out phone records, and issue subpoenas to access them but would first require judicial approval, whereas before judicial approval was not necessary.
Some news sources are stating that the Obama administration is going to end collection of bulk data, but what is more literally meant is that the collection of bulk data will no longer be undertaken by the NSA itself; rather the responsibility to collect and store data will be held by the telecommunications companies who are expected to make the information readily accessible when necessary. The new proposal is also limited specifically to calling records, and does not include limitations to other types of bulk information collection like emails, application data, social networking data or financial transaction data; all of which is commonly done over phones now also.
The Obama administration’s NSA overhaul is largely ambiguous when it comes to “ending” the collection of bulk information. There has yet to be any specifics given regarding the standards of what classifies someone as a suspected terrorist or how broad those standards will be; and while the government will need judicial approval to access the records of the suspected person, judicial approval will not only allow access to the records of the suspected individual but access to all the call records of the individuals associated with the suspected person within two degrees of separation. Although the government has failed in providing the public with any examples of how the NSA surveillance program has been useful in thwarting terrorism, such as last year’s Boston marathon bombing, they still argue that the program is necessary and useful.
By Natalia Sanchez