Obama's Privacy Epiphany

Why it's hard to believe the president is serious about surveillance reform


Last June, after news reports revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was surreptitiously collecting everyone's telephone records, President Obama called this massive dragnet a "modest encroachment" that "the American people should feel comfortable about." Last Friday he portrayed the program as a significant threat to privacy.

Which is it? Evidently the answer depends on the latest polls, which find that the American people are not as comfortable with the NSA's snooping as Obama said they should be. The president's obvious lack of conviction about the threat posed by mass surveillance makes it hard to believe he is serious about addressing it.

There was a time when Obama seemed genuinely concerned about the erosion of privacy in the name of fighting terrorism. Running for the Senate in 2004, he condemned the PATRIOT Act for "violating our fundamental notions of privacy," declaring that "we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries."

As a senator in 2005, Obama continued to criticize the PATRIOT Act and sponsored a bill aimed at raising the standard for using national security letters to obtain business records. As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, he promised that in his administration there would be "no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens" and "no more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime." 

Last week Obama insisted that "I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became president." If so, it is rather puzzling that he waited five years to implement the reforms he announced on Friday, which include new limits on searches of the phone record database and an attempt to "establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding [these] bulk metadata."

As long as the program was secret, it seems, Obama did not recognize the privacy threat it posed. But now that it has been revealed by a leak that Obama condemns, he realizes that "without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs."

In its report last December, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which Obama appointed in response to the NSA controversy, noted that "the record of every telephone call an individual makes or receives over the course of several years can reveal an enormous amount about that individual's private life." Furthermore, the panel said, the same legal theory that the NSA uses to justify mass collection of phone records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act could be used to collect "bank records, credit card records, medical records, travel records, Internet search records, e-mail records, educational records, library records, and so on."

By his account, Obama did not understand any of this until critics started complaining about the NSA's heretofore secret database. He also was suddenly troubled by the fact that the program "has never been subject to vigorous public debate," although his administration did everything it could to prevent such a debate.

Another reason to question Obama's sincerity: He continues to exaggerate the utility of the database, arguing in his speech that it is needed to stop terrorist attacks. Yet his own privacy advisers concluded that "the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders"—that is, specific orders aimed at particular targets.

Obama and his review group do agree on one important point. "Given the unique power of the state," Obama said on Friday, "it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect." The working group likewise warned that "Americans must never make the mistake of wholly 'trusting' our public officials." As long as Obama is in the White House, there is little risk of that.

NEXT: Brickbat: You Can Leave Your Hat On

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Why, it’s almost as though he has his finger to the wind and is doing saying just enough to ride it (the wind, not his finger).

    1. Sometimes the teleprompter changes its mind.

    2. He probably rides his finger too. If by ride you mean sticks it up his ass while masterbating.

  2. Why, it’s almost as though his minions have their fingers to the wind and are programming him just enough to ride it (the wind, not his finger).


    1. Why, it’s almost as though his handlers have their fingers to the wind and are programming him just enough to ride it (the wind, not his finger).

  3. Yep, it’s the most transparent administration in history.

    1. This is also giving my Obot acquaintances a new thing not to acknowledge.

  4. OT: BART cops forcibly enter residence of burglary suspect in jail, one officer shoots and kills another officer.


    1) why are transit cop conducting searches off BART property?

    2) how does one cop shoot another cop in an empty apartment besides they’re a) amped up, b) poorly trained, c) doing something they rarely do, d) itching to shoot someone ?

    1. Answer to 2 is all of these. Answer to 1 is see 2.

      1. Sorry BigT, the correct answer as always is FYTW.

    2. one of the officers who forced entry into the home accidentally shot and killed another officer, authorities said.

      That’s awfully strenuous language. Are were sure the gun itself didn’t “accidentally discharge,” resulting in the tragic death of a decorated veteran and member of the community?

      1. “one officer fired a shot, which fatally struck another officer.”

        That’s what I’m looking for.

    3. e) Cop 1 was sleeping with the Cop 2’s wife, or vice versa.

    4. They were investigating robberies of BART Riders and were attempting to apprehend the suspected dirtbag.

      1. wow…I guess only assholes like me read the article linked

  5. He’s evolving.
    Into what is the $1 trillion question.

    1. Bush Prime.

    2. Into everything like, Tom Parris in that transwarp episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

  6. His opinion on the matter evolved. What part about “evolved” don’t you understand?

    Oh, I forgot you teathugkkkochlicans don’t believe in evolution.

    1. I liked the way you worked Koch into your negative descriptor, hadn’t seen that yet, well done!

  7. modest encroachment. Gonna have to add that to my list of oxymorons

  8. OT: a favorite troll myth dispatched?


    1. Typical statistics misuse. It reports total dollars, not dollars per capita.

      That kind of deliberate misdirection makes me think reality is the opposite of what they say.

  9. “Given the unique power of the state,” Obama said on Friday, “it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect.”

    And yet so many people, including Obama, argue about the facts.

    What is metadata? How much data is being collected in violation of the Fourth Amendment? Did violating almost every individual American’s Fourth Amendment rights protect us from terrorism?

    None of that matters.

    There is no fact that will change the fact that violating the Fourth Amendment is a violation of the Fourth Amendment–or that institutionalizing such violations will necessarily allow some future executive to “abuse the data” massively violate our rights.

    Talking about the efficacy of violating our Fourth Amendment rights is like talking about the efficacy of slavery–I wouldn’t care if slavery had been the most efficient use of labor possible; the institution was predicated on violating individual rights, so slavery had to go.

    Qualitatively, Fourth Amendment violations by the NSA aren’t as bad as slavery, but if we’re talking about the efficacy of those violations as if they somehow justify violating individual rights on a massive scale, then the principle is the same: treating people’s rights as if they’re only important insofar as it’s convenient to do so necessarily means treating people as if they’re important so long as it’s convenient.

  10. The Atlanta paper had a Politifacts item about Obama’s evolving stance on the surveillance state recently – they rated as “True” William Kristol’s statement that Obama had changed his mind on the programs after becoming President. The evidence they used to prove that Obama had changed his mind is the same evidence used here – going by what he has said. How the hell you can possibly think that what a politician says proves what he thinks is beyond me. Is it true that Obama has changed his mind? Isn’t it possible that he was either lying (lying then or lying now) or just saying whatever he was told to say by his teleprompter and really didn’t have any opinions one way or the other?

    And I remember that Bush in 2008 addresed Obama’s criticism of him by saying in effect ‘If you knew what I knew…’ and Obama promptly scoffed at the idea that the President receives intelligence briefings any different than what the Senate receives. IOW – Candidate Obama specifically said that it was ridiculous to suggest that he would change his mind after learning things as President that he did not know as a Senator because he already knew everything there was to know.

  11. Funny how when the poll numbers change, he changes his mind. Earlier it was gay marriage, then Syria. Now privacy.

    1. Even funnier how the left gush over his words and then turn a blind eye when his actions don’t mesh. Boosh made me do it.

  12. The only privacy Obama is concerned about is his own! The emperor has effectively hidden his birth certificate, school records and early history from the American public when on his second day in office he issued Executive Orders to do so. It’s too bad the NSA can’t expose this lying fraud.

  13. It is not the privacy threat he is concerned with but the political one.

  14. It’s maybe the most transparent administration in the history.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.