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Presidential panel maps out 40 ways U.S. surveillance needs to change

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A presidential committee today delivered a 300 page document outlining why U.S. surveillance programs are broken and how to fix them.

In August, President Barack Obama ordered the committee to investigate the government’s surveillance practices and write recommendations on how to fix them. The request came after former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden released top secret information about the government’s spy programs. It rocked both U.S. citizens’ trust in the government and the world’s trust in U.S. businesses.

The committee suggests 40 huge changes, including:

  • The government should stop blanket collection of American phone call logs. The NSA is currently said to collect this kind of information in bulk in order to query it later for foreign intelligence.
  • Any decision to monitor someone should come not from the NSA or CIA, but rather from the President’s office.
  • The NSA should promise “it will not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable generally available commercial encryption.”
  • The U.S. should stop collecting information about security vulnerabilities in other systems, called “zero-day attacks.”
  • Any secret attempt to target a foreign target should first be put through a test to see how bad it would be if the project were to get leaked.

There certainly will be some backlash to these suggestions. For example, the U.S. and Israel reportedly used this kind of information to successfully target Iran’s nuclear systems, as the New York Times noted.

Of course, while this is one of the strongest voices we’ve heard in favor of major reform thus far, not everyone is satisfied with the report.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, released a blog post saying that while it is happy that the review group suggested more protections for both foreign entities and U.S. citizens, the committee’s suggestions still “left open the door for future mass surveillance and failed to address the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass spying.”

“We’re disappointed that the recommendations suggest a path to continue untargeted spying. Mass surveillance is still heinous, even if private company servers are holding the data instead of government data centers,” Kurt Opsahl, EFF’s staff attorney, said in the post.

This week a U.S. district judge did question the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass surveillance. Judge Richard Leon found the mass collection of phone metadata unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge Leon explained why one of the central court cases the NSA uses to justify its blanket phone metadata collection is no longer relevant.

The case was Smith v. Maryland, which stated that information about the numbers a phone connected to were considered “business records” and weren’t subject to privacy protections. Judge Leon, however, argued that at the time the court decision was made, 1979, no one could have dreamed what phones are capable of doing now.

Along with the changes suggested by the committee above, U.S. intelligence agencies will also have to figure out a new internal structure for keeping these revised programs safe. NSA chief General Keith Alexander explained that, as an admin, Edward Snowden really had access to everything and was trusted not to tamper with it. This internal structuring, however, has likely already been reviewed and changed.


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