Not far enough

President Barack Obama’s surveillance reforms are deeply disappointing.

Prompted by a tidal wave of global outrage over whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US National Security Agency’s highly intrusive and unethical surveillance practices, the reforms, while a step in the right direction, do not go far enough. Documents leaked by Snowden revealed that the US collects vast amounts of electronic data – almost 200 million text messages were being collected and stored daily -- from communications of private individuals around the world.

It even listens in on mobile phone conversations of heads of state and government, including those of its close allies. Obama has announced now that henceforth the NSA will not store the metadata collected. Such data will be held by a yet-to-be designated third party, with the NSA requiring legal permission to access the data. Obama proposes to shift the storage of data. He is silent on its collection. No steps have been taken with regard to the agency’s seeping surveillance activities and intelligence gathering. In a bid to smooth feathers ruffled overseas, Obama said that the US would refrain from monitoring the communications of foreign leaders.

But this pledge applies only to the US’ “close friends and allies.” As for others, Obama’s assurance that the US does not spy on “ordinary people who don't threaten our national security” is hardly comforting.

Many in the US and elsewhere were hoping that Obama would take meaningful steps to rein in the NSA and the massive security apparatus that has sprung up and grown unchecked since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In the name of defending US national security, snooping by US intelligence agencies has assumed shocking proportions, trampling on freedoms guaranteed to American citizens by their Constitution and violating the privacy and rights of people of other nationalities. Here was an opportunity for Obama to right the wrong. Sadly, he failed to rise to the occasion. His reforms are superficial at best.

Hopefully, Obama’s speech on surveillance reform is the start of a conversation with the public on the NSA’s excessive snooping, rather than the last word on the matter. He needs to go much further in restraining the NSA. During his presidential campaign in 2008, Obama spoke movingly about the many excesses of the war on terror and pledged to undo these wrongs. The NSA’s surveillance overreach is one such excess. He must act to address it substantially.

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