The other day leaks emerged suggesting that the Obama Administration was preparing a new proposal that would end bulk communications collection as we know it
. The supposed move was the result of surveillance reform efforts announced by the government back in January
. Most of our readers obviously weren't buying it, and the New York Times editorial board argued
that if the government really wanted to stop bulk data collection, they could simply end the program (that didn't happen).
What has happened is the government has released a fact sheet
containing a loose outline of proposed changes to how the intelligence community will interpret Section 215 of the US PATRIOT ACT. While there is a smattering of promised improvements here, many of them are things the government already stated they would do, most of which won't have any meaningful impact on user privacy.
"Earlier this year, I announced a transition that would end the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program as it previously existed and that we would establish a mechanism to preserve the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata," the President said in a statement
. "I did so to give the public greater confidence that their privacy is appropriately protected, while maintaining the tools our intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to keep us safe."
One change is to eliminate a government-held metadata database and ensure that the phone companies hold on to metadata themselves, something that was already proposed. If you've followed AT&T's cozy relationship with government on this front (from allowing fiber splits and copying of entire data streams
to giving advice on how best to break the law
), this won't provide much comfort.
A more important change (also already stated) is to reduce the web of surveillance from "three hops" away from a surveillance target to two hops. That should act to reduce the overall volume of the metadata being collected, eliminating collection from oodles of innocent Americans. You're still looking at a hell of a lot of innocent people who'll be having their personal data hoovered up by the intelligence community.
By and large the fact sheet fails to really outline the actual language in the government's proposed "legislative package." When you're buried in semantics and rule bending to the degree that the NSA has been, that's fairly important to note. The fact sheet also doesn't do much to deal with the problem that FISC is essentially just a rubber-stamp court that says yes to everything. At the bottom of the sheet, the government states the FISC program will be reauthorized:
Given that this legislation will not be in place by March 28 and given the importance of maintaining the capabilities in question, the President has directed DOJ to seek from the FISC a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program, which includes the substantial modifications in effect since February.
In short, until we can see the full details of the legislative package, this reform seems more like a reconfiguration than an actual reform. You'd also need Congress to actually work together to pass meaningful reform, so that's another obvious hurdle. The President could act now to do more to do something about metadata collection, but he's effectively kicking the can to Congress -- where there's already a number of competing bills -- some better, some worse -- in circulation.
Regardless, the importance of getting the government to go from total denial and snotty pot shots at the media to actually admitting there's a problem that needs fixing in just eleven months speaks to the importance of what Snowden and other whistleblowers have accomplished. Hopefully this is the beginning of an honest sea change and not simply some cosmetic hyperbolic reconfiguration. It should only take another decade and dozens of additional whistleblowers to find out.