US President Obama has announced a number of intelligence reforms aimed at restoring confidence in the NSA. He promised, among other things, to stop the wiretapping of befriended heads of state and government.
Obama began his long-awaited speech by defending the work of the NSA. He reiterated that the intelligence services have taken enormous steps in the last ten years that would have prevented attacks. He also said that US spy services do not operate differently from those of other powers when spying on other countries: “We are not going to apologize that our intelligence services are more effective at their job.”
He did, however, acknowledge that the risk has increased that the services will go beyond their limits due to the increased capacities. He also said he realizes that technology makes it possible to spy on citizens in a way that is at odds with their freedoms.
One of the concrete commitments Obama made was to stop eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders unless state security is in imminent danger: “If I want to know what they think about something, I pick up the phone and call them, instead of us eavesdropping on them.” He also promised more cooperation with friendly nations in the field of intelligence. The comment is an attempt to end the diplomatic turmoil of recent months; Germany and Brazil in particular were angry at the wiretapping of their statesmen and demanded a stop to ‘excessive espionage’.
In addition, Obama said that certain protections Americans enjoy with regard to their privacy will also apply to foreigners, without going into further detail about this other than that it concerns, among other things, the duration of stored data.
Most of the reforms concerned the US itself. For example, Obama promised that the program for the massive storage of telecom metadata will eventually disappear and make way for an alternative where the government does not have the data. The NSA is also no longer allowed to tap telephone numbers that are three steps away from those of a suspected terrorist, that is only allowed for numbers via a maximum of two ‘hops’.
The controversial national security letters, requests from the FBI for data from companies, no longer remain indefinitely secret. Google, among others, complained in the past that it was not allowed to say anything about the requests for user data. However, the national security letters do not require a court order. Obama had been advised to let it go through the courts; the FBI was against this. “We’re going to make it possible for communications providers to disclose more information about data requests than ever before,” Obama said. A large number of IT companies, including Microsoft, Google and Facebook complained about the lack of transparency in the disclosure of requests for user data.
Another piece of advice the US president failed to follow was to address the NSA’s practice of building backdoors into software and IT equipment, exploiting software vulnerabilities and deliberately weakening encryption. Security experts warn of the consequences, while US companies fear that their products will be banned outside the US. Obama does not seem to want to curb this practice.