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President Obama praises NSA, offers little in mass surveillance reform

Ellen Messmer | Jan. 20, 2014
President skirts most reform recommendations made by his appointed panel in December.

President Obama indicated as part of his NSA reform effort,  there would be less NSA surveillance of foreign leaders friendly to the U.S., unless "there's a national security interest," and added, if he wanted to know what they were thinking, "I'll pick up the phone to call them rather than turning to surveillance."

President Obama also said the State Department will establish a service officer for signals intelligence specifically, and there will be a new person appointed at the White House as a point person for his suggested reforms. He added that John Podesta, his newest adviser in the White House, will be setting up a group to "lead a review of Big Data and privacy."

Saying America has to lead the way in debating sensitive issues like online surveillance, President Obama also took the occasion to mildly rebuke China and Russia, both known for energetic cyber-spying. "No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance program, or Russia to take the privacy of their citizens into account."

The reaction by many in the information-technology world was largely disappointment that the President did not go further in tackling sensitive questions about whether the NSA tries to put backdoors in high-tech equipment or deliberately weakens encryption — all issues that have come to light in the Snowden revelations. If the NSA manages to get backdoors into equipment — and whether industry is cooperating with that, as RSA has been accused of with its BSAFE toolkit holding NSA-compromised encryption — is of central concern to buyers and sellers of technology. (RSA has acknowledged it had a $10 million contract in the past with the NSA for making an elliptic-curve algorithm suspected to be an NSA backdoor made the default in its BSAFE toolkit but says it would never do anything knowingly to hurt customers).

The President's Review Group specifically advocated that any NSA reform should include restoring the sense of trust the industry should have in the U.S government. and the NSA, which plays a large role in guiding technology, especially for the military. The Review Group's report states: "The US Government should take additional steps to promote security by (1) fully supporting and not undermining efforts to create encryption standards; (2) making clear that it will not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable generally available commercial encryption; and (3) supporting efforts to encourage the greater use of encryption technology for data in transit, at rest, in the cloud, and in storage."

However, President Obama made no mention of these topics at all. He also referred broadly to media stories, based on Snowden's leaks, about the NSA as "crude characterizations" of what the NSA does.


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