In June 2013, it emerged that the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the phone records of millions of US citizens under a court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under the US Patriot Act.
In a speech on Friday, 17 January 2013, Obama said the government should no longer hold databases of every call record made in the US.
However, he made clear the intelligence agencies should still be able to access call records information, without giving any details of how that information will be stored.
This has given rise to concerns by telecoms executives that they will be forced to retain information about call duration, callers and location – known as metadata – according to the Guardian.
Citing an unnamed executive, the paper said telecoms companies are concerned about how long they will have to keep the data; which government agencies would have access to it; and what protections they would have, were there legal challenges to their retention or distribution of the information.
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In response to Obama’s speech, the wireless industry trade body CTIA said it looks forward to working with government and law makers to develop policies that strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and the civil liberties of US citizens.
But it said: “CTIA continues to believe that this balance can be achieved without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.”
An alliance of top US technology firms campaigning for reforms, in efforts to distance themselves from alleged links to NSA surveillance, released a joint statement welcoming the reforms.
The alliance – including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL – said the proposals represented “positive progress on key issues including transparency from the government and in what companies will be allowed to disclose, extending privacy protections to non-US citizens, and [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] court reform”.
But the statement added: “Crucial details remain to be addressed on these issues, and additional steps are needed on other important issues, so we’ll continue to work with the administration and Congress to keep the momentum going and advocate for reforms consistent with the principles we outlined in December."
The five reform principles call on governments to limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes.
They say governments should not undertake bulk data collection of internet communications and that requests for companies to hand over individual data should be limited by new rules.
These rules should balance the “need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the internet”, the alliance said.
In other responses to Obama’s speech, Alex Fowler, head of privacy and public policy for Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, said the reforms fell short.
“Without a meaningful change of course, the internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity,” he said.
No end to bulk collection
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said it was seeking 12 major reforms, but Obama had addressed less than a third of these.
The EFF noted that Obama had made no statements about the government’s attempts to undermine encryption protection online or to protect whistleblowers.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said Obama’s decision not to end bulk collection and storage was “highly troubling”.
“The president’s own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety,” said Anthony Romero, ACLU executive director.
US surveillance operations have been under fire since whistleblower Edward Snowden began releasing documents related to surveillance and other NSA operations in June 2013.
Earlier this month, the European parliament’s civil liberties committee called for an end to the “vast, systematic and indiscriminate” collection of personal data by UK and US intelligence agencies.