Obama’s NSA curbs don’t go far enough
President Barack Obama offered up a plate of tepid reforms Friday that could provide some minimal restrictions on how the National Security Agency collects and uses metadata from American citizens.
But much more needs to be done if Americans are to have some degree of certainty that the records of their cell phone usage, as well as their email and online activity, aren’t being unnecessarily tracked and stored by government entities.
We say this, knowing full well that most Americans, including people at this newspaper, have long ago forfeited large amounts of their privacy when signing contracts for cell phone service, Internet access, email and more.
Most people realize that by signing those contracts, they are giving private companies access to their communications records, and that some of that information is routinely traded or sold to other businesses. However, that doesn’t mean they want the government tracking their every online action or cell call.
Whether NSA’s collection of such metadata — made public last spring by former NSA employee Edward Snowden — is legal or not is a matter of considerable dispute. One federal judge has said it violates Americans’ Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. But another federal judge has upheld the practice as constitutional. It’s likely the question will eventually end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
But even if it’s determined to be legal, it doesn’t mean the government should engage in such activities. That’s why we continue to support legislation being pushed by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall and others to place more legal restrictions on how and when NSA may collect electronic data from its citizens without their knowledge. The legislation would go further than what Obama has proposed.
Central to Obama’s Friday order is a plan to allow the data to still be collected, but it would have to be stored by a government organization separate from intelligence agencies, and those agencies would have to obtain approval from the intelligence court to examine the records for specific information.
What’s troubling is that Obama would leave the details of how all this would work to the Justice Department and intelligence agencies, which have been reluctant to accept any changes in the system.
Last year, Obama created a special committee to review the secret surveillance programs used by NSA, and to make recommendations for changes. But, as The Boston Globe noted over the weekend, Obama ignored the most critical recommendations of his committee — including that the NSA halt the mass collection of data from U.S. citizens.
If there is going to be any significant change in these surveillance programs, it appears it will have to come from the legislative, not the executive branch. Udall and others must continue that fight.