How should the U.S. balance privacy with national security in NSA spy programs?
March 19, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
Seeking to calm a nervous public about government surveillance programs, President Obama has announced changes in how the National Security Agency collects and tracks phone records of Americans as well as stores their email and Internet information.
“The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe,” he said in a speech last month at the Justice Department.
Up to now, the NSA collected vast amounts of phone records from terror suspects abroad. Information about whom they called, for how long and how often they talked was all swept up in massive databases. The NSA uses this large collection of data, called metadata, with other law enforcement agencies like the FBI to track and capture suspected terrorists or people planning to harm Americans or American institutions.
Until last summer, the collection of information was a secret. Then a whistle-blower revealed that the NSA was collecting the phone records of American citizens and foreign leaders. Before the leak, the NSA and the Obama administration said the NSA was not tracking Americans on U.S. soil.
That wasn’t entirely true since Americans who were a few degrees of separation from a terror suspect had their phone records tracked. So if you talked to friend A, and he talked to Friend B who happened to have an uncle abroad who was being watched and they recently had a phone conversation, chances are that your phone records were being collected, all of it without public review or approval from Congress or the president.
Some Americans found it troubling that the NSA, which was collecting the information and reviewing it, seemed to operate without any oversight. This lack of oversight was a condition of the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 legislation that expanded government surveillance both domestically and abroad to catch terrorists before they strike.
Only the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which authorized the surveillance program, had oversight of the NSA’s program. Because of the highly sensitive nature of the information being discussed during the authorization cases, the FISA court sessions are closed. There is no oversight from Congress or the executive branch. The FISA court, some argued, was a rubber stamp for the NSA. It approved 1,855 of the 1,856 requests for the collection of phone data in 2012.
Obama has stressed that the collection of data will continue. But he says that the privacy and civil liberties of citizens are to be protected while allowing the agency to do its job.
The first major change the president proposed was that the NSA would no longer house the data it was collecting. A yet-to-be named agency would hold the data and the NSA would have to make a request to look at it. For this change to become law, Congress would have to amend the Patriot Act, requiring approval from both houses. Obama also said that a judge’s approval must be received before intelligence agencies can examine any data.
The president said he would shrink the length of connections surrounding terror suspects to two steps away, instead of the three connections that exponentially increased the number of Americans being tracked. And Obama said a panel of advocates would review the surveillance policies of the NSA. These advocates will come from various backgrounds and will be asked to make the surveillance policies as unobtrusive as possible while still allowing law enforcement to track and capture suspects.
Now that the president has laid out his plans to overhaul the surveillance programs, it is up to Congress to act, although Obama may be able to order some changes on his own. House Speaker John Boehner said, “The House will review any legislative reforms proposed by the administration, but we will not erode the operational integrity of critical programs that have helped keep America safe.”
What do you think?
How can the government balance protecting citizens from terror attacks with privacy and civil liberties concerns? Is one more important to you than the other? Do you think the NSA should have more oversight or less? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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