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Obama's U.S. global spy program reform not enough

President Barack Obama took a small step Friday toward reforming the massive U.S. global spy program, but some experts said the reforms did not go far enough.

In a nationally broadcast speech, Obama banned snooping on leaders of Washington's allies in a bid to address the controversy that erupted after revelations by leaker Edward Snowden, who unveiled documents showing the vast scope of U.S. intelligence gathering worldwide.

The speech also came on the heels of revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) gathers about 200 million text messages worldwide on a daily basis.

Obama said the United States would now consider privacy issues after myriad accusations of spying on allies, including Israel, and charges of tapping the private cell phone of key European ally German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I personally believe, as a former intelligence officer, that Obama struck a decent balance," Wayne White, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office, told Xinhua.

Most governments friendly to Washington will see the change as a key concession allowing them to justify their continued intelligence cooperation with the United States, as they are heavily dependent on American intelligence owing to their more limited capabilities, he said.

"Quite frankly, some of the more sweeping NSA collection activities Americans object to most also appear to have been wasteful, with intelligence funding better spent on more focused programs," he said.

"With the myriad challenges -- including sheer volume -- posed by rapid advances in international communications, U.S. intelligence has strained to keep pace," he said, adding that a fresh reassessment of collection priorities will be a healthy development.

But the reforms do not go far enough, said the Wireless Association, the biggest lobby group for the U.S. wireless industry, which represents major tech firms nationwide.

In a statement released Friday, the group said security 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."

While Obama said a government database containing people's phone records would come under the control of a non-government entity, the lobby group said phone companies do not want to be involved in storing such data.

At the same time, it remains unknown whether the president's directive can be effectively implemented by bureaucrats in Washington, and whether the NSA will accept and follow it.

Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution, told a panel Friday the question comes down to the level of aggressiveness of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and to whether the NSA will listen to the DNI, although he said he believes the NSA will listen.

The DNI will now report to the president and Congress on certain privacy issues related to the NSA.

Meanwhile, Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, expressed his dissatisfaction, saying "although we're heartened by many of the positive steps that the president outlined today, many key questions and reforms were left unaddressed."

"Many controversies (were) punted to Congress or to other government officials," he said.

"While these procedural reforms to the bulk collection of metadata are welcome, they fall far short of ending the program as the president claimed," said Brett Solomon, executive director of Access, a grassroots digital rights organization.

"Real reform is needed and it's needed now," he said.

Indeed, much trust has been lost over the spy controversy, and some studies find U.S. companies stand to lose billions of U.S. dollars over spying activities due to doubts over whether companies can protect the security of data on their systems.

[Source: By Matthew Rusling, Xinhua, Washington, 17Jan14]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 21Jan14 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.