By Amy Roost
Last Friday, President Obama announced he’s ending the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records; the U.S. will no longer eavesdrop on allied leaders; the NSA will now need judicial permission before accessing the metadata about calls; and a panel of outside advocates will be empowered to make arguments before the FISA court in order to protect the privacy rights of American citizens.
As to Dick’s question whether these changes are good for the country, there are two levels of debate.
The first is philosophical. Do we want to live in a society that takes zero risk with terrorism? If our answer is yes then the president’s reforms are a step in the wrong direction for our country.
The second level of debate is more practical. Does the collection of metadata really protect us from terrorism? If your answer is yes, then the president’s reforms are a step in the right direction for our country.
To the philosophical debate, the U.S. has made it known to the world that we stand for the values of democracy and liberty, and civil liberties of any individual. Mass surveillance is probably not the message that we want to portray to the world.
To the practical debate, consider what happened in the lead-up to 9/11. Numerous reports suggested it wasn’t that intelligence agencies needed more information; it’s that they didn’t do a very good job sharing the information in the way that would have thwarted the attacks.
Metadata is the electronic equivalent of the outside of a mailed envelope. It tells you about the origin and the destination of the communication but nothing about its content. Currently, the NSA broadly gathers sweeping metadata first, whether there is any probable cause or not, and then sorts it out. This turns the previous model known as signals intelligence on its head. Signals intelligence had very strict rules about what the government could collect and when, but once they did collect it, they could look at it in any way they wanted.
Like all institutions, the NSA is prone to protect their own raison d’etre. Hence, it creates new methodologies, such as metadata collection to justify its existence. It may also be guilty of manipulating public opinion via “threat inflation” in order to garnish a bigger piece of the $80 billion in taxpayer money that goes to our nation’s intelligence agencies.
Our intelligence community might do better with more targeted, limited searches, encrypted or de-identified data than with a wholesale importation of data into the government’s hands or into the hands of a third party. I say “might” because no one really knows how many actual terrorist attacks have been prevented due to metadata analysis.
I’ve been disappointed in Obama’s policies with regard to privacy protection and despite campaign promises to the contrary, his administration’s embrace of the most onerous clauses of the Patriot Act. But a president’s task of striking a balance between the protection of an individual privacy rights and the prevention of more terrorist attacks is not an enviable one.
The reforms he outlined last week mark a welcome pendulum swing in the direction of privacy protection. Also keep in mind that the president is not the only actor on the stage. Were Congress not rendered virtually useless by parochial concerns and partisan conflict, it could have blocked NSA overreach long before Edward Snowden came along.
Legitimate limited surveillance for national security purposes is something almost everyone can support. But we have to be a lot clearer about what the rules are and about it being targeted and strategic, not a wholesale collection of metadata.
Roost is executive director of Silver Age Yoga Community Outreach and a freelance book publicist. A former Poway resident, she now lives in Solana Beach. Reader comments, through letters to the editor or online, are encouraged.