Saturday 16 December 2017

Obama's changes to spy programmes: questions answered here

Barack Obama says the US is not spying on ordinary citizens who don't threaten national security (AP)
Barack Obama says the US is not spying on ordinary citizens who don't threaten national security (AP)

President Barack Obama is ordering changes to spy programmes that sweep up Americans' phone records and store email and internet data from around the world, seven months after former NSA analyst Edward Snowden began divulging secret methods of the National Security Agency.

If enacted by Congress, it would mean significant changes to the bulk collection of communications.

Here are some questions and answers about his plan:

Q: What about spying on world leaders?

A: In response to criticism from around the globe, Mr Obama is giving assurances that the US will not spy on its allies' heads of state. But the White House declined to say which world leaders are on that "friends" list.

Mr Obama said other countries, including some who have complained about the NSA, constantly try to snoop on the US government's phone calls and email. He said there are compelling national security reasons for snooping on foreign governments and the US will not apologize for being better at it.

Q: What about the phone calls and emails of people living abroad?

A: Mr Obama said the US should respect the privacy of non-Americans, too. He said he will extend to foreigners some protections against spying that apply to US citizens.

He is directing Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to develop new restrictions on how long the US can hold data collected overseas and how that data is used.

The US will not spy on ordinary people who do not threaten US national security, Mr Obama said.

Q: Why did Obama decide to alter the surveillance programmes?

A: The president has been under pressure since Snowden took an estimated 1.7 million documents from the National Security Agency and gave them to journalists around the world. Some in public, Congress and allies overseas were shocked to learn the extent of the NSA's post 9/11 surveillance.

In the immediate aftermath of Snowden's disclosure in June, Mr Obama promised to review the system. Today, he defended the work of the US spying apparatus as necessary to protect Americans and the nation's allies. But he said at a time of rapidly changing technology it is important to ensure that privacy and civil liberties are protected.

Q: Will these changes be immediate now that the president has ordered them?

A: No. Many of the changes involve altering the USA Patriot Act, a law enacted by Congress, and any changes to that would require new legislation and congressional approval. And now the work turns to lawyers who will have to determine what other changes require Congress approval, and what Mr Obama can simply order to be done. Even administration officials were uncertain today what he could immediately change.

Q: What could happen to my phone records?

A: For now, the NSA will keep collecting and storing phone data, including the numbers called and the length of conversations, but not what is said.

Mr Obama said the NSA should be able to tap into those records when it needs to find people linked to suspected terrorists. But he wants the government to store the records elsewhere, even though most phone companies have balked at the idea of storing them themselves.

Mr Obama said the programme as it now exists will be ended over time.

Q: So where will my records be stored?

That has not yet been decided. Mr Obama told Attorney General Mr Holder and National Intelligence Director Mr Clapper to find a solution within 60 days - about the time the NSA surveillance programmes are due for their regular reauthorisation. That could mean arranging for phone companies to store the records, creating a new third-party entity to hold them, or coming up with some other plan.

In the meantime, Mr Obama ordered two immediate changes:

:: He will shrink the length of the connections surrounding a suspect that can be checked, to two steps away from a suspected terror organisation. Now the limit is three steps away.

:: The administration will require a judge's advance approval before intelligence agencies can examine the data. Now, the NSA could decide whether it had enough evidence to run a query on a suspect.

Q: What about the NSA reading my email and watching me online?

A: The bulk collection of online data is supposed to be targeted only at people outside the United States, but it does end up sweeping up information about Americans in the process. Mr Obama asked Mr Holder and Mr Clapper to consider whether new privacy safeguards could be added.

Press Association

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