White House Panel’s NSA Limits Fall Short, Critics Say

Sign outside the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md., on June 6, 2013.

A review group formed by the Obama administration recommends the National Security Agency end bulk data collection due to its “potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty.”

A White House advisory report published Wednesday makes 46 recommendations to reform the National Security Agency, including a proposal for the agency to seek phone and Internet records through court orders, rather than collecting them in bulk.

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The 308-page full report made by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is available online. In August, President Barack Obama commissioned the review group of independent legal and technology experts to “assess whether, in light of advancement in communications technologies,” national security surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies fails to maintain the public trust. The group of five legal and technology experts met with Obama Wednesday to discuss their report.

“The current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty,” the report said. “We recognize that the government might need access to such metadata, which should be held instead either by private providers or by a private third party. This approach would allow the government access to the relevant information when such access is justified, and thus protect national security without unnecessarily threatening privacy and liberty.”

Obama will use the report to inform policy recommendations on changing the NSA, which will be announced in January, according to a statement from the White House.

“The president again stated his expectation that, in light of new technologies, the United States use its intelligence collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security while supporting our foreign policy, respecting privacy and civil liberties, maintaining the public trust, and reducing the risk of unauthorized disclosure,” the statement said.

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Recommendations also included the creation of a privacy advocate to argue civil liberties concerns at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which screens requests from intelligence agencies for digital data. Numerous bills in Congress call for the creation of a privacy advocate.

The report also recommends companies be allowed to do more specific transparency reporting on government requests for data. Companies including Yahoo and Facebook have sued the government for the right to report more information about confidential data requests, citing concerns that their customers are suspicious about government monitoring of networks. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also met with top executives from major tech companies Tuesday to hear their concerns about how unchecked NSA spying could damage their business reputations. The report adds that it may be necessary to require telecom and Internet companies to collect data if officials determine more information is needed from court requests.

The proposals to increase transparency and oversight are a positive step, but shifting the bulk data collection duties from the NSA to digital companies would be “bulk collection by proxy,” says Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute think tank.

“The review group plainly said we need to move away from the NSA bulk collection of data and the government data requests should be narrowed,” Bankston says. “The report is primarily making positive recommendations for U.S. citizens, and for non-U.S. citizens. These are going to be very important to restore America’s reputation as a steward of the Internet. It’s now up to President Obama to accept the recommendations of his hand-picked panel.”

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The advisory group recommended the new leader of the NSA be a civilian, but the White House eliminated that possibility. Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA’s director, retires in the spring, but the White House said the position will remain combined with leadership of Cyber Command, which is a part of the Defense Department, meaning his successor will be a military official.

The review group of advisers are Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism chief and State Department official; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Michael Morell, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama White House regulatory official; and Peter Swire, who served as chief counselor for privacy during the Clinton administration.

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