Obama's NSA Telecom Surveillance Reforms Really Won't Change Much

NEWS ANALYSIS: It appears as if the White House made significant concessions in the government's surveillance practices to bolster U.S. citizens' privacy. But in reality the changes are few in substance.

When President Barack Obama announced on Jan. 17 apparently sweeping changes to the ways in which the various intelligence agencies collect and store data, it sounded like a major concession to U.S. citizens and businesses concerned about their privacy.

While there were a few important changes, it's hard to see that they will have much practical effect. And, in fact, if the changes are followed, the most important change may be to reduce the nation's ability to prevent terrorist attacks or respond to attacks after they happen.

There are two reasons most people will see little relevant change. First, when the president said that the National Security Agency would no longer keep telephone metadata in its own data center, he didn't specify where it would go other than to pass that decision off to Congress.

Second, even if a destination for that data is determined soon, there's a lot of data involved—more than you can put on a flash drive and copy on to another computer. The sheer act of moving the data and ensuring its security and integrity could take months.

Coupled with the process of moving the telephone metadata is the problem with accessing it if and when the intelligence agency needs access to it. In the case of a suspected terrorist plot against the United States, the NSA would need to perform a classic big data analysis of all of that information. This requires significant bandwidth to access that data, and processing it outside the NSA's own data center could be problematic.

There have been recent discussions about having the phone companies keep the data, or creating a new agency that would be responsible for storing and controlling access to the phone metadata that the NSA currently stores. Creating a new agency and investing the kind of money it would take to create the necessary data storage and data communications infrastructure is certainly possible, but it won't be cheap, and it won't be fast. Asking the phone companies to store the data is easy, but Ma Bell and its descendants aren't going to do it for free either.

But regardless of what entity stores the data, it's up to Congress to make it happen. In case you haven't noticed, getting action out of Congress is problematic at any time. Since this is all happening in an election year when all of the House and a third of the Senate are trying to keep their jobs means that little actual decision-making or spending of money will likely happen until sometime after Election Day November 2014, at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the data will stay in the NSA's data center, although the agency may be required to get a court order to use it if the data involves U.S. citizens. A new group of privacy advocates is supposed to review any such request to ensure that privacy rights of U.S. citizens are protected.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...