OTI Responds to Reports that NSA Review Group Recommends Continuation of Bulk Records Program

Published:   December 13, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC — The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) responded to today's reports in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times offering the first reported details on the recommendations contained in an upcoming report on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs.  The report, due to the White House this weekend, is from a Review Group task force established by the President this summer in the wake of widespread questions and concern about the scope of the surveillance programs, and is expected to contain some recommendations on how to modify the programs to better protect Americans' privacy. OTI Director Sascha Meinrath has been a leading voice on concerns over how the review group was formed and the need to restore trust in government. Today's reports seem to bear out those concerns, indicating that although the review group will be recommending several reforms that OTI would support, its recommendations fail to adequately address concerns about the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records.

"We're reserving judgment until the complete report of the NSA review group has been released, but the latest news about the group's recommendations is worrisome,” said OTI Policy Director Kevin Bankston.  "The review group reportedly recommends some important, common sense reforms, like separating the NSA's code-making and code-breaking missions to avoid a dangerous conflict of interest, introducing a public advocate into the processes of the secret surveillance court, and establishing some level of privacy rights for people outside the United States.  We appreciate the review group's apparent attempt to address many of the privacy and civil liberties concerns that have been raised with the NSA's programs.  However, and as we feared would be the case, the review group reportedly has urged that the NSA continue with its bulk collection and analysis of American phone records, just with the companies rather than the NSA holding the data."

"Mandating that phone companies or a third party retain years' worth of phone data just in case the government wants to look at it is not an 'overhaul' of or an 'end' to the NSA's bulk collection program, as some reports have described it.  It’s just bulk collection by proxy.  Indeed, this seems like the same sort of mandatory data retention program that law enforcement agencies have been proposing for years, and that privacy advocates, telecommunications companies and a bipartisan coalition of Congressional leaders have been opposing for just as long.  Such mass data retention actually creates new privacy risks by creating an attractive target not only for our intelligence agencies but for garden-variety police officers, civil litigants and divorce lawyers, cyber-criminals and foreign spies. Although we applaud the review group for recognizing that the current bulk data collection process is unacceptable, it doesn’t sound like the proposed reforms go far enough, and we urge the President to put a definitive end to the bulk collection program rather than continuing to treat every American like a terrorist suspect.”

“It is imperative that the White House act now to implement bold reforms that will reassure the world that the United States can still act as a responsible steward of the Internet and of the telecommunications networks that span our borders,” said OTI Director Sascha Meinrath. “Although it’s hard to judge definitively without access to the final and full report of the review group, I fear that the recommendations now being made to the White House will do very little to restore the trust that has been lost, with grave implications for US foreign policy and for the future of America’s Internet and telecommunications industries.”

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