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Obama’s NSA Overhaul: Worth a Damn?

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Obama’s NSA Overhaul: Worth a Damn?
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After an outpouring of outrage from Americans about their loss of privacy, President Obama is calling on the NSA to change how it does business. The question is, “Will this make any real difference?”

At the heart of most of the debate about the NSA’s bulk phone data collection practices is something called “metadata”. Essentially, this is information commonly collected by phone companies for billing and usage purposes. These can include:

- incoming and outgoing telephone numbers for each call
- codes that identify individual phones
- the time and duration of the call

We learned from Edward Snowden’s leaks that the NSA has been collecting and storing this information on every American since 9/11.

According to Time Magazine, President Obama’s call for NSA “overhaul” basically puts an extra step between the NSA and that data from the phone companies. The data is still there, as it always was, but now requires a court order to retrieve. There is an exception made for cases of national emergency.

“This ensures that government is not in possession of that bulk data,” Obama said. “I recognize that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data. This proposal that’s been presented to me would eliminate that concern.”

Some of the first questions that this brings up is: What constitutes a “national emergency”? Could it be virtually anything the NSA is investigating, given that their raison d’être is, by definition, “national security”? And how open-ended can their requests be? Under what circumstances might a court deny them access to the records they request? Any at all?

Obama said the concern was that the government was “in possession of that bulk data.” So, is the answer to simply leave the data off-site, but easily accessible at whim?

But even these nit-picking questions pale when we start asking: What about the other, scarier programs like RETRO, which we reported on here recently. The RETRO program records everything, not just metadata. The NSA can listen to any phone call. And not just in real-time. They have a 30-day buffer of calls waiting to be listened to.

When faced with programs like this, isn’t quibbling over FISA Court-style permissions really just dickering around the edges of the problem? When someone has a key to your house, and is able to walk in and take whatever they like, you don’t argue about whether they can park along the curb while they are doing it.

Does this really “eliminate that concern?”

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Obama’s NSA Overhaul: Worth a Damn?
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