Barack Obama

Civil Libertarians Respond to Obama's NSA Reforms—Meh!


Obama at Justice Dept.
White House

Earlier today, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he offered some "reforms" to the national surveillance state as overseen by the functionaries at the National Security Agency. The president did correctly observe

Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say:  Trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect.  For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.  Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power.

Well, yes. However, it does not appear that the president really believes or understands his own point. In fact, many prominent civil libertarian organizations do not think that the president's proposed reforms are anywhere close to being sufficient "to constrain those in power."

From the American Civil Liberties Union

…the president should end – not mend – the government's collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans' data. When the government collects and stores every American's phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an 'unreasonable search' that violates the Constitution. The president's own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety."

From the Electronic Frontier Foundation

…Now it's up to the courts, Congress, and the public to ensure that real reform happens, including stopping all bulk surveillance–not just telephone records collection. Other necessary reforms include requiring prior judicial review of national security letters and ensuring the security and encryption of our digital tools, but the President's speech made no mention of these…We also look forward to addressing the underlying constitutional problems with the surveillance in our ongoing lawsuits: Jewel v. NSA and First Unitarian Church v. NSA.

From the Center for Democracy and Technology

…While we were pleased to see the President acknowledge that bulk collection by the NSA is untenable, we were disappointed in his failure to offer a clear path forward on these reforms. Storage of bulk records by companies or a third party would be merely a shuffling of the chairs, not a real reform. The only true solution to this issue is restoration of a system of particularized requests, as would be required by the USA FREEDOM Act.

From the Internet Infrastructure Coalition

…the President's recommendations are still lacking when it comes to striking the appropriate balance between privacy and security. Without actions that include meaningful reforms to both bulk surveillance, and the indiscriminate use of National Security Letters, all together such a balance is unlikely to be achieved. As the Review Group noted in their report and again in Tuesday's hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bulk collection programs employed by the National Security Agency are neglecting civil liberties and undermining privacy. Unlike retailers and other commercial entities who track spending habits and other metrics using their customers' data, one can't simply refuse to shop at NSA's surveillance superstore.

Because a fearful public might once again be willing to sacrifice liberty in the false pursuit of security should there be another significant terrorist attack, it is critical that strong civil liberties protections be adopted now.