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Editorial: Surveillance changes don't go far enough

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 04, 2015 5:00 AM

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Though the secret documents detailing the true depth of our government’s surveillance on both domestic and foreign communications are still being filtered out to the public, much of the ire over the secret NSA data collection has fallen out of popular discussion.

That’s why it’s all the more surprising that the Obama administration announced a modest step to curtail some of those collection practices Tuesday. Several of the criticized data-surveillance programs will be subject to new rules.

The executive branch will conduct a regular investigation into the NSA’s practice of listening in on foreign leaders’ conversations (which led to international embarrassment for the United States when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff made that list). This is a welcome, yet overdue change. After denying that he knew anything about the NSA tapping Merkel’s private phone conversations, Obama was put into the awkward situation of explaining to foreign leaders just how his nation’s surveillance apparatus was operating outside of his authority. Ensuring this never happens again is necessary.

Another change that will prove more applicable to U.S. citizens is the expiration date of national-security letters. Purportedly used to secure information about a person of interest in an investigation, these letters demand user information from companies, without a judge’s subpoena and not subject to any independent oversight. These letters also typically stipulate that the company receiving them stays silent about the collection, a gag order that some were unwilling to comply with. In October 2014, Twitter sued the U.S. Department of Justice over the practice, saying the restriction violated the First Amendment.

While the controversial letters will not go away, the length of time that companies won’t be allowed to speak about them will be reduced from five years to three. This seems like a small bone to throw at privacy advocates, intended to mollify complaints such as those lodged by Twitter rather than a shot at reform. The Daily Iowan Editorial Board is still concerned about this practice, as well as the multitude of other surveillance efforts that continue unimpeded, despite the president’s stated intentions for reining in the programs in a speech more than a year ago at the Justice Department.

The program that drew perhaps the most alarm was the NSA’s mass collection of caller information, or metadata, on all phone calls made to or from the United States. The privacy implications for this in and of itself are not as concerning, but the notion that the government can cast this wide of a net without our knowledge makes one wonder what still remains secret.

The only reason these programs were revealed in the first place was because of the secret documents released by Edward Snowden, who remains in Russia, fearing prosecution in the United States. And when the Obama administration (which has prosecuted more leaks under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined) makes only a cursory update to NSA surveillance programs after a year of deliberation, it is clear that reform is not one of its goals.


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