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Earlier this morning at the Justice Department, President Obama discussed government surveillance in a speech that was as much a defense of the NSA’s activities as it was a response to growing discomfort with the agency’s surveillance practices. After opening with a refresher on the history of U.S. intelligence in the 20th and 21st centuries, the President got down to business, outlining proposed reforms for the government’s bulk phone data collection program.

nsaThe changes come through directives issued by the Obama administration, or will be recommended by the administration to Congress, as they could require legislation.

First, the NSA will no longer be able to, at will, access phone call information collected and stored in its database. In order to obtain metadata from the database going forward, the NSA will have to make its case to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). Up to this point, the NSA could simply go in and poke around if it had “reasonable suspicion.” With each query going in front of the FISA court now, it’s reasonable to expect that the NSA will have to decide if the evidence is there before it simply throws data at the wall to see what sticks.

One thing to keep an eye on, however, will be “rubber stamping.” Will the FISA court simply approve every request to help the NSA avoid a bottleneck?

Another change announced by the Obama administration will shrink the scope of the NSA’s phone metadata surveillance. In the past, the NSA could go three levels deep, or three “hops,” from a suspicious phone number. As you can imagine, the government tracking an individual’s communications could wind up sweeping a lot of innocent people into the mix, which is why the NSA will now be limited to two hops; meaning the original phone number, all the numbers that number was in contact with, and then all the numbers that those numbers were in contact with.

If that sounds like an extremely wide net to cast with just two hops, imagine it with three.

Should Congress oblige the President with his request, the secret FISA court will also gain some public advocates. These advocates will argue on behalf of the public, but they won’t be present all the time. Instead, they’ll only be used when the FISA court runs into a new issue it hasn’t had to solve before; basically, when an NSA request tests the law in some brand new way. The advocates won’t be sitting in when the NSA asks for data access, another fact that makes rubber stamping a possibility.

An interesting tidbit from President Obama’s speech: there were several mentions of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who made off with tens of thousands of documents and leaked them to news outlets. The President was rather dismissive of Snowden and his actions, stating that they “often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries.” President Obama later remarked, “This debate will make us stronger,” though it’s worth asking if we would have had this debate — and if the speech the President gave today would have happened at all — had Edward Snowden not leaked those documents.

We’ll keep you up to speed with any new information on the reforms covered today.

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