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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.

Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst at IT-Harvest, says he found the President's speech about the NSA to be "masterful and calming." However, "the major substance was his direction to the NSA to limit meta-data discovery to two links instead of three."Other reform suggestions did include "stricter requirements and review from the FISA Court to approve National Security Letters, and allow service providers to reveal more information about those letters," Stiennon noted.

"From my perspective, the real impact of the NSA surveillance has been to reveal the shaky security grounds on which all communications has been built. A ball has been set in motion to correct that. The tech industry will be the ones to counter NSA surveillance," Stiennon commented. "The only threat to improved encryption, key management, and obfuscation of meta-data, is that of the NSA attempting to thwart such efforts."

Stiennon says the goal has to be to "prevent the NSA from engaging in an arms race with the tech industry. They should be legally restricted from tampering with algorithms, infiltrating tech company infrastructure, or subverting carriers."

Dwayne Melancon, CTO at security firm Tripwire, says President Obama's speech was a "good step, but we need to see convincing results to know that the changes are meaningful and concrete." Melancon, saying he found much of the President's stated intentions to be a bit unclear, added he hoped there will be further barriers to limit the collection and use of surveillance data about U.S. citizens, but "the big difference is whether it will really make a difference or not."

"To paraphrase something often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time." Today, President Barack Obama managed to please nobody at any time. Obama can attempt all he likes to mend NSA surveillance program - but it is quite clear to any thinking person that much of the NSA's Internet surveillance programs cannot be mended to function in a free global society - it can't be mended, so it must be ended. No amount of mass surveillance is acceptable among democracies," says Sean Sullivan, security adviser at F-Secure.

Several digital rights groups called on Obama for a larger overhaul of the NSA's surveillance programs.

Real reform requires Obama to "end mass collection" of metadata phone records, says David Segal, executive director of digital rights group Demand Progress. "We urge the president to recognize that the public concern is not only over whether mass spying programs are explicitly abused, within standards set by the NSA, but whether these programs should exist at all — whether they are fundamentally compatible with the notion that we live in a free society, a democracy," Segal said in an email.


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