Up until a few months ago, President Obama probably didn’t worry much about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program. After all, Congress had approved it, courts oversaw it, and a majority of Americans continued to support it — even after the leaks were reported.
But, now that every major branch of government is calling for reform, including the President’s own special advisory group, I predict far more transparency and a partial end to mass spying is coming.
To be sure, the future of the NSA is mostly in the president’s hands: it’s controlled by the executive branch and Obama wields veto power over any pending legislation. But looking at the president’s history with government programs and his own unique political philosophy, we can bet that the big overarching change is that moneyball is coming to the NSA.
In other words they’ll need to prove that all their programs are worth the risks, which implies more transparency, oversight, and limited access to data.
Much More Transparency On Programs And Targets: Obama is, despite everything, a government transparency pioneer. His first major initiative, the $787 billion economic stimulus package, designed an entirely new way to track federal spending online. Before that, one of his first major executive orders was the creation of the Chief Technology Officer, who opens government data warehouses to citizens.
In a cringe-worthy folksy analogy, Obama said that the American people deserve to verify the NSA programs, similar to the way he used to invite his wife into the kitchen to verify that, he, in fact, washed the dishes (really). To that end, he’ll likely release the gag order on tech companies who wish to post the number of users being spied on through their platforms.
For programs that cannot be made public, members of Congress will quit getting stonewalled by the NSA, which has made it quite inconvenient for them to attend briefings.
Limited Access To Bulk Data: The mass collection of telephone and Internet data is really what sets off America’s hair-trigger anti-authoritarian rage. Obama’s task force recommended that telephone companies be the gatekeepers of data, which the government can request with judicial oversight.
The NSA maintains that sophisticated data mining helps it unearth terrorists who exploit every new app, messaging channel, and website as a cavern to cloak dangerous collaboration. But it has yet to convince critics with access to classified reports that the NSA’s fancy data-mining tools actually work.
From now on, the NSA will likely have a quarantined sandbox of data from telephone and tech companies to explore. The more bad guys they catch, the more data they get. But, no more wanton authority to hoard every 0 and 1 they want.
Obama has been a fierce defender of evidence-based policy-making; a principle that will likely replace the intuition of war hawks as the basis for intelligence strategy.
Stop Screwing With Standards: Engineers the world over were furious that the NSA coerced security standard organizations to loosen procedures that could prevent government spying. Unfortunately, everything from nuclear plants to pacemakers need protection from malicious hackers. Obama’s a fan of believing in an interdependent, interconnected world; one weak link threatens us all.
Human Resource Changes: Access to private data will be significantly limited. Congress has already proposed revoking data access from thousands of future Edward Snowdens, who had disturbingly high-level access to spy on Americans. While some decried this move as a cosmetic change, it’s the rogue workers that were the most likely cause of real harm, like love-sick agents spying on ex-lovers.
Critics are wrong to paint Obama as anti-privacy — he’s privacy negligent. Like many innovators in Silicon Valley, pioneers of transparency and new media typically focus on the good that comes from more information, and tend to ignore the unintended consequences.
In fairness, the NSA probably hasn’t done much concrete harm, but it’s building up the capacity for disturbing levels of power. Democracy and tyranny have always balanced on a knife’s edge; as Obama ends his presidency and looks to a possible future Republican administration, he’ll agree to rein in the NSA’s power.