President Barack Obama called for changes to U.S. National Security Agency surveillance, with new privacy advocates assigned to a surveillance court and a transition away from a controversial telephone records collection program in the U.S.
However, Obama stopped short of major changes advocated by his own surveillance review panel and civil liberties groups. A recent debate over the NSA's surveillance programs, prompted by leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, forced Obama to propose changes.
"Ultimately, what's at stake in this debate goes beyond a few months of headlines or passing tensions in our foreign policy," Obama said in a speech Friday. "When you cut through the noise, what's really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that's remaking itself at dizzying speed."
The biggest change Obama proposed was a transition away from an NSA bulk phone records collection program, with the goal being a new program that doesn't include the NSA holding onto the records, Obama said. Obama wants members of his administration to propose a new program by late March, when the phone records program up for reauthorization.
"I believe it is important that the capability this program is designed to meet is preserved," Obama said.
The NSA will continue to collect and store large numbers of U.S. phone records as the agency transitions away from the program, Obama. The NSA's bulk phone records collection program will have new limits, with investigators there able to query phone numbers just two steps away from a known terrorist instead of three.
In addition, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) will have to approve any queries to the phone records database, Obama said.
The Obama-appointed Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology recommended in December that telecom carriers keep the records or that a third party store them, but Obama said both of those approaches raised new privacy concerns.
In addition, Obama called on Congress to approve a new group of privacy advocates to argue on behalf of the public before the FISC. Currently, only U.S. agencies seeking surveillance orders appear before the court.
Obama also issued a new surveillance policy directive calling for new transparency and oversight into U.S. surveillance programs. Obama also promised new privacy protections for foreigners, and he pledged to stop surveillance of the leaders of allied countries, unless there was a significant national security reason.
Instead of tapping the phones or Internet services of foreign leaders, Obama will "pick up the phone" and ask for their views on issues the U.S. is interested in, he said.
Several digital rights groups called on Obama for a larger overhaul of the NSA's surveillance programs.
Real reform requires Obama to "end mass collection" of metadata phone records, said David Segal, executive director of digital rights group Demand Progress. "We urge the president to recognize that the public concern is not only over whether mass spying programs are explicitly abused, within standards set by the NSA, but whether these programs should exist at all -- whether they are fundamentally compatible with the notion that we live in a free society, a democracy," Segal said in an email.
Obama's call for a transition in the bulk phone records program raises new questions, added Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation Open Technology Institute.
"If the ultimate alternative to government collection is mandatory bulk data retention by the phone companies or mandatory bulk handover to a third party, the president should be prepared for a major legislative battle with key members of Congress, the technology industry and the privacy community arrayed against him," Bankston said by email. "Particularly when the president's own review group concluded that the records program is not essential to preventing terrorist attacks ... the right answer here is to stop the bulk collection completely -- not to keep the same bulk data under a different roof."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.