The Time is Now: Surveillance Reform and International Engagement

Dean C. Garfield photo

I had the opportunity earlier today in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice to listen to President Obama outline measures to reform the nation’s surveillance framework, and to engage on surveillance reform on an international level.

I am encouraged by what I heard. It’s clear that the White House listened carefully to the concerns, reforms, and principles that the tech sector has submitted and made public. The reforms and plans for international engagement that the president laid out today are an important step in restoring the public’s trust in the U.S. government, as well as in the technology sector.

The reforms the president called for include: 

  • Developing a process for declassifying opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that have broad privacy implications;
  • Allowing for privacy advocacy to take place within the FISC by establishing a panel of advocates to offer an independent voice in certain court proceedings;
  • Placing restrictions on how the U.S. government retains, searches, and uses some of the data collected pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act;
  • Requiring that metadata only be collected following a judicial finding or in a true emergency, and requiring a greater nexus between the pursued data and a terrorist organization;
  • Enabling companies to disclose information about the orders they receive to provide data to the government; and
  • Providing non-U.S. persons with certain safeguards in connection with their personal information being held by the U.S. government.

In addition, the president called for ending the bulk metadata program in its current form, and instructed the intelligence community and the Justice Department to develop options for a new approach that would end the current practice where the metadata is held by the U.S. government.

ITI has previously expressed support for and urged adoption of many of these reforms in written submissions to the Administration, the Review Group for Intelligence and Communications Technologies, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

It is important that these reforms be implemented swiftly, including those requiring congressional action, so both economic and personal security can be advanced. 

Further, as stated by the president, we must broaden the discussion to advance reform beyond our borders. In today’s global economy, international norms relating to surveillance activities are critical if we are to grow our global economy.  To that end, yesterday, ITI and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) issued a set of seven Global Principles intended to apply to government collection of private sector data from commercial entities.  These principles complement those previously released by eight highly impacted companies.

In addition to greater transparency and meaningful oversight, the Global Principles call for governments around the world to recognize that national surveillance frameworks have global impacts, and to engage in multilateral discussions to minimize adverse impacts in connection with the collection of private sector data.

Progress is being made, but there is much that needs to be done to rebuild trust and limit the negative economic impact of the NSA disclosures.  The president’s speech gives momentum to the tech sector’s call for action.  It is critical we work collectively to build on that momentum.   

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