President Barack Obama has announced a change in the rules regarding how the federal government collects data on both Americans and foreigners. According to The New York Times, the new regulations will require government agents to destroy any private information swept up about Americans that has no relevance to homeland security interests. Similar data pertaining to foreigners must be deleted within five years.
Rather than discuss the privacy protections the new law offers – which realistically aren’t many – it’s quicker and easier to discuss what this law won’t stop. Notably, the government has license to continue its bulk data program. And while the law says it must delete data after a certain timeframe, there’s realistically no guarantee it will actually do so. The government’s most secretive agencies have routinely lied to the public, the courts and congress about data collection efforts in the past. Without any type of transparency or any real checks on the NSA’s power, there’s no way to know if the agency is following the rules. (President Obama is, however, proposing regular White House reviews of NSA efforts to monitor foreign leaders.)
The new rules also won’t put a stop to the government’s massive effort to collect metadata. Currently, the NSA keeps records of every phone call placed by American citizens that includes information about who was called, when and by whom. An incredible amount of personally identifiable information can be extrapolated from metadata, as a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology research study shows. There’s no timeline for the government to get out of the business of collecting metadata itself, a change the president promised early last year.
President Obama’s rules propose modest changes regarding the use of “national security letters” – secret government requests for information that skirt judicial review of any kind. The FBI routinely issues these letters to phone carriers and ISPs to seek information on customer records, forbidding news of the request to be filtered down to the customer itself. Under the president’s new rules, secrecy pertaining to national security letters will last just 3 years, unless a midlevel FBI official provides written reasoning for continued secrecy. Of course, the loophole of offering discretion to midlevel FBI bureaucrats should ensure that no actual acts of transparency will take place.
For more on the president’s data proposed collection reforms, take a look at today’s coverage in The New York Times.