Pres. Barack Obama made clear in his speech January 17 that he has no plans to cut back on the intelligence community’s efforts to gather and analyze large amounts of electronic communications, called signals intelligence. Changes will instead come in how the government oversees those efforts and where that information is stored. The president was less clear about the extent to which input solicited from Congress, privacy advocates and corporations will factor into future policies governing intelligence work.
Obama frequently defended the National Security Agency (NSA) and its signals intelligence work and posited that as the last remaining world superpower, the U.S. has a responsibility to gather intelligence from sources around the world and share such information with its allies as part of its peacekeeping role. A big part of that responsibility involves using the vast array of technologies—including supercomputers and databases—at the government’s disposal to support intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination. “The power of new technologies means there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do,” Obama said. “That places a tough obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”
Despite holding fast to most of his administration’s intelligence practices, Obama did acknowledge the potential for abuse: “Intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy, which makes their work less subject to public debate.” As such, he has issued a new presidential policy directive—PPD-28—for signals intelligence activities at home and abroad. This directive lays out the principles that govern the collection of signals intelligence, sets limitations on the use of data collected in bulk as well as creates a process for annually reviewing intelligence-gathering efforts and safeguards for that info. The directive also asks the director of national intelligence to, within the next year, assess the feasibility of new software that targets specific information during intelligence gathering, without the need to grab it in bulk.
Perhaps the most tangible change to intelligence work addressed in Obama’s speech is the end of the Section 215 program—which enables the government to collect large volumes of metadata, including phone numbers as well as the time and duration of calls. The government will continue to collect such data, but it won’t store it. Obama has asked the intelligence community and the U.S. attorney general to give him some options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28.
The president is wary of either keeping data at individual communications companies or that consolidating the data at a third party is the answer. “Both of these options pose difficult problems,” he said. “Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns. On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single, consolidated database would be carrying out what is essentially a government function but with more expense, more legal ambiguity and actually less accountability.” This is a work in progress.
In a move that could shed more light on how the federal government investigates the intelligence it collects, Obama has asked the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to keep the White House and Congress better informed of rulings made by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The president also called on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates outside of government to provide an independent voice in significant FISC cases.
Obama basically justified what the U.S. does by explaining why its intelligence programs are needed, says Chris Bronk, Rice University’s Baker Institute Fellow in Information Technology Policy and director of the institute's Program on Energy and Cybersecurity. “He sent a clear message the U.S. government is not going to restrict its capabilities in legitimate intelligence collection and analysis missions.” Less obvious is how the country’s legislation will keep up with technological innovation, which continues to enable new surveillance capabilities.