White House Leaps Onto NSA Surveillance Merry-Go-Round

The United States Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have submitted four proposals to reform the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The recommendations come well before the March 28 deadline set by President Obama.

Three deal with having the data stored by some other organization, and the fourth calls for the scrapping of the surveillance program — which is being conducted under Section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act — and relying on good old-fashioned investigative work instead.

The first three were mooted by president Obama in a speech on NSA reform in January; those approaches in general had not been well received.

What the Proposals Suggest

The first proposal for data relocation suggests telephone companies retain the data and provide it to the NSA when the agency wants to search call records of specific phone numbers believed to be connected to terrorism. The NSA no longer would collect bulk data on all Americans’ phone calls.

Some members of Congress have proposed legislation along these lines, but it’s being opposed both by the telephone companies and by Sen. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.

The telcos object because most “are not secure enough,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told the E-Commerce Times. “This will just make them a target, and they don’t want the liability.”

The second proposal reportedly is for a government agency other than the NSA to store the data. It’s believed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was suggested as one of the options.

That idea doesn’t cut any ice with Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I can’t believe anyone had the gall to recommend the FBI should store the data” Richardson scoffed. “I can’t believe that will be taken seriously.”

The third suggestion is that an entity outside of the phone companies or the U.S. government should hold the data, but privacy groups criticized that idea, first raised by the president in January, on the grounds that such agencies might become an extension of the NSA.

However, pushing the data into the private sector “won’t solve anything,” Enderle pointed out. “It just makes it a different problem.”

Like a Circle in a Spiral

The president raised all four proposals in his Jan. 17 speech, acknowledging that each had its difficulties.

It’s an open question as to what the DoJ and the DNI have been working on in terms of reforming the NSA’s surveillance practices apart from those ideas.

“I’m supposing there has to be more to the recommendations than reiterating back to the president what he said earlier,” said the ACLU’s Richardson.

“Hopefully, they gave the president options to weigh the pros and cons,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

“It seems they’re throwing the question at endless committees as a delaying tactic,” Enderle opined.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

“If they don’t monitor phone calls and the Internet and something happens, everyone will ask why the government wasn’t monitoring things,” Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst at Tirias Research, told the E-Commerce Times. “They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

Surveillance is essential to fight crime and for reasons of national security, he pointed out.

“Are there limits to that? Yes,” McGregor continued. “Should there be restrictions on it? Definitely. Will there be abuses? Likely — but it’s important.”

It’s likely that reform is coming, the ACLU’s Richardson suggested. “The president has given the directive to his people that something has to be done; he can’t come back to the public now and say, ‘We changed our minds — it’s too difficult.'”

Further, Congress is up in arms about the issue, she pointed out.

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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