NSA Reform Falls Short of Tech Expectations


As President Obama’s speech was about to begin on Friday morning, I waited with anticipation. He was about to address some of the most vital issues surrounding privacy and security in our country, as well as the issues with its governing body—The National Security Agency (NSA).

At this point, everyone should be aware of the timeline of events that have taken place in regards to national security and privacy over the last six months. If not, I will digress for a moment. In June of 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a series of the government’s highly classified NSA documents. It was revealed that the NSA was harvesting millions of email and instant messaging contact lists, searching email content, and tracking the location of cell phones through a PRISM program. It was also revealed that the NSA was secretly tapping into Yahoo and Google data centers to collect information from hundreds of millions of account holders worldwide by tapping undersea cables using the MUSCULAR program.

Now fast forward to Friday’s speech in which President Obama was set to address these secret government programs and Snowden’s leaks. As it unfolded, the President announced incremental changes to be put in place, such as new limits on phone records and more privacy for non-U.S. residents.

Good start, I suppose…

But then before I realized it, I heard him start wrapping up his speech. At this point I am at full attention, and I could not help but think to myself—is that it?

image via shuttsterstock

There were a lot of issues and concerns, especially in our tech sector, unfortunately, that I feel were left unaddressed by his speech. As a Silicon Valley CEO and privacy advocate, there were three major questions that I wanted to see answered:

  • What are they going to do about the PRISM and MUSCULAR programs?

The PRISM program has allowed the government to subpoena data regarding internet communications from major companies including Google, Yahoo, and Apple since 2007. One step further, the MUSCULAR program actually intercepts data being relayed from companies to data warehouses all over the world. Since these are two of the most seemingly invasive programs controlled by the NSA, I was expecting to hear some amendments or at least a call for more transparency. However, there was little to no mention of these programs, and it will be one of the hot topics as the industry moves forward.

  • Who will store all the metadata?

While the President made a call for the U.S. government to no longer house the metadata that is collected, there was no suggestion as to who will store that data. Accessing the data through internet companies would be a major red flag for privacy, and creating a new organization would be a bit of a legal mess that would take entirely too long. It will be interesting to see what they ultimately decide here.

  • Will there be more transparency when the government serves U.S. companies with “special” subpoenas asking for their customers’ information?

National Security Letters (NSLs) have been used by the FBI to ask companies to turn over their customers’ data. These letters constitute a special kind of administrative subpoena that don’t require the FBI to get judicial approval before it’s issued.  These letters carry gag orders that force recipients to not disclose their existence, not even to the target whose data is being requested, even after years of the letter being issued. While the President did endorse more transparency here, he did not make any call to action for change to the very secretive process. One beacon of hope though was the experts on the review panel suggesting to reform the law to require a judge's approval for every NSL.

Although I do not feel there were any significant leaps or bounds promised throughout the President’s nearly 45-minute address, I was excited about one of his proposals. Toward the end, he spoke about the potential formation of a panel of public advocates to weigh in on these sensitive privacy matters. Given the dullness of the actions that will result from the President’s speech, this is one bright spot that will at least give “us” a seat at the table to extend the dialog.

With that being said, I do understand the President’s struggle for balance. It’s his duty as a leader of this country to protect its people from attack both inside and out. Measures like those encompassed in the Section 702 Program help to do that. But as we continue to move forward in this unprecedented technology age, it will be vital to make changes to these programs. These changes will need to be made in order to protect our most important rights set by the Constitution, most importantly the 4th Amendment, which outlines our right to privacy.

At the end of the day, I look at this speech as a signal of the beginning. It will be the beginning of our government’s reform efforts. I believe there will continue to be incremental changes across the board until they are able to find a healthy balance of protection for this country and protection of people’s rights.

Remember, it is only January. I expect to see plenty of movement and improvement throughout this exciting New Year.

Edited by Ryan Sartor
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