After months of studying the issue, President Obama is making changes to the mass surveillance program and offered a plausible explanation as to why such methods are necessary to safeguard America. But he should have gone much further in protecting privacy rights and guaranteeing transparency going forward.
The revelation that American citizens’ telephone metadata had been swept up and stored by the National Security Agency was unnerving.
The president said that he will end the bulk telephone data program, “as it currently exists.” But that carefully phrased statement left plenty of operating room for the government. In fact, he could have said, but did not, that the United States would stop gathering data from the likes of Google and Microsoft. Indeed, the president seemed to justify such spying. These companies, he explained, are already keeping tabs on consumers through social media and know our habits, expectations and what we might want to purchase.
“Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes,” the president said. “That’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer and your smartphone periodically.”
True. But the statement misses an important point about the expectation of privacy from government eyes.
The president ordered more transparency, but with key loopholes that make the order virtually meaningless. He rejected the most far-reaching recommendations of his own review panel.
For example, the review panel suggested taking the bulk data program out of the NSA’s purview and either creating a new independent entity or leaving it with telecommunications companies.
Instead of agreeing to either idea, Obama merely offered his support for removing the data from the NSA and suggested he would ask administration officials to devise such a system. He also looked toward Congress, which would have to pass legislation to change the program.
He did agree to one important recommendation of his panel. That would allow searches of the database only with permission from the surveillance court, with a broad exception allowing searches “in the case of a true emergency.” He also put an end to surveillance of our “friends and allies.”
The government must be allowed to do its job in safeguarding the American people, but it must respect the privacy rights of Americans. Finding that balance is the debate we still need to have, and it should be as open as possible. The president missed an opportunity to push the debate forward.