President Obama outlined plans to “reform” the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs in a Friday morning speech at the Justice Department. To his credit, the president announced some positive changes that would reduce the programs’ invasiveness and improve their judicial oversight.
Unfortunately, his reforms would not end the indiscriminate and unwarranted bulk surveillance of Americans’ phone records, despite more than 100 members of Congress urging him to end the program. Instead, the president suggested shifting the burden of collecting, storing, and securing Americans’ phone records to telecom companies or another private “third party.” Simply moving all this data off the government’s servers—and presumably, off its balance sheet—does not transform an objectionable activity, like mass surveillance, into an acceptable one. The government will, after all, still be able to access privately held phone records without a warrant.
What is concerning is: if the administration succeeds in pressuring American telecom firms to serve as an extension of the U.S. intelligence community, why stop with phone records? The NSA is also authorized to collect Americans’ email records in bulk—but the agency stopped doing so in 2011, citing “operational and resource reasons.” Should phone companies take on this responsibility, strong-arming Internet companies to retain their users’ metadata is a logical next step. The unintended consequences and pitfalls of such a move are worth serious consideration.
In a world of data breaches and hackers, we need to be able to trust Internet providers whose services we rely on to communicate, transact, innovate, and create. When a company makes a promise to users about how it will use, collect, and store their information, it should be held to that promise, absent a specific and individualized reason to break it. Outsourcing bulk-data collection to America’s private sector would undermine trustworthy digital relationships, and with them, the nation’s enviable position atop the global information economy.