US President Barack Obama will announce much-anticipated reforms to the way spy agencies collect phone and internet data on Friday, a move prompted by the damaging leaks of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama, who must walk a tightrope between campaigners for the inviolability of civil liberties and the needs of an intelligence community that is able to collect ever-increasing amounts of data, is expected to announce only modest changes to the NSA's massive "metadata" dragnets.
Opponents of the spying programmes say they are unconstitutional while the intelligence community says its activites fall within the legal limits.
The president's speech will be closely watched for any significant changes to the PRISM programme, which mainly collects internet data on foreigners based on records acquired from internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Apple.
Snowden, a former NSA contractor who has since sought asylum in Russia, leaked classified information last year on the US government's widespread data mining and spying programmes – including the monitoring of foreign leaders – in one of the biggest security breaches in US history.
The disclosures infuriated US allies, embarrassed Obama administration officials and shocked privacy campaigners and some lawmakers.
The White House has assured Americans that data on phone calls and internet use is only collected to identify patterns of contact between terrorism suspects, and that no NSA employees are actually listening in to phone calls.
But Obama has said that one of his goals in Friday's speech at the US Justice Department is to restore public confidence in the espionage community.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama acknowledges that Snowden's disclosures were damaging but realises that the reforms they prompted were "legitimate" and necessary.
"The president has... acknowledged all along that the debates that those disclosures sparked were legitimate, that the questions that have been asked and the ideas that have been put forward about ways we may need to examine and, perhaps, reform our signal intelligence collection have all been worthwhile and legitimate," Carney said.
Britain's Guardian newspaper and other news outlets released the latest revelations from Snowden on Thursday, describing how the NSA collected almost 200 million text messages a day from around the world and used them to extract data on the location, contact networks and credit card details of mobile phone users.
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Obama would likely neither outlaw nor significantly reform the bulk collection of such telephone and internet metadata.
"We are looking to the president tomorrow to make a very bold statement about reclaiming privacy. We are looking to him to take leadership about reining in this programme," she said.
Kevin Bankston, policy director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, warned that if Obama did not announce specific reforms, the battle would shift to Congress.
"If he does fail to take a stand and exercise the bold leadership that is necessary it will become Congress's responsibility to step into the breach and we look forward to working with them to do so," Bankston said.
The White House had indicated that Obama was looking at the idea of preventing the NSA from hoarding phone and internet data itself. Instead, the responsibility would reside with phone companies or a third party, and NSA agents would have to acquire permission from a special court to access it.
The idea of taking the responsibility for data storage away from the NSA was endorsed by a review board report commissioned by Obama, which came up with more than 40 recommendations for reform.
But the group did not recommend an end to the programme. One member of the board, former deputy CIA director Michael Morell, said the programme could have prevented 9/11 had it been in place back in 2001.
Media reports say that Obama may leave it up to Congress to decide how to handle the collected data, or even leave it up to the NSA.
Obama is also expected to announce extra privacy protections for foreigners swept up by the programmes and limits to spying on allied world leaders.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-01-17