Obama Administration Announces Reforms to Data Collection Rules

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Updated | The Obama administration announced new rules governing data collection Tuesday, a move that comes more than a year after the president called for intelligence agencies to reform surveillance procedures during a speech at the Department of Justice.

The rules also come nearly two years after former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government was conducting mass surveillance on Americans and foreigners and storing the gathered information without their knowledge, which produced an international outcry.

"For our intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, we must maintain the trust of the American people, and people around the world," Obama said on January 17, 2014.

Intelligence activities "must take into account that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their nationality or wherever they might reside," he added.

The new rules were detailed in a policy document titled "Signals Intelligence Reform: 2015 Anniversary Report" and published Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on its Tumblr site.

The new rules call on intelligence analysts to immediately delete private communications data, such as the content of conversations, that is collected on American citizens during foreign surveillance sweeps, which "lack[s] foreign intelligence value." The rules require agencies to delete similar data on foreigners after five years and for the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee decisions on what data are retained.

The administration will also allow national security letters, which are secretly used to compel companies to hand over users' data, to be disclosed publicly after three years.

The rules also state that data on U.S. citizens will not be used as evidence against them in any criminal proceeding unless approved by the attorney general, or in cases with national security implications or in other "serious crimes."

The new policies limit when intelligence agencies can collect signals intelligence data in bulk: when detecting, countering or combating international or domestic threats such as terrorist or cybersecurity threats.

Furthermore, the document says that intelligence officers must undergo "mandatory training programs" to ensure that they "know and understand their responsibility to protect the personal information of all people."

While the report outlines the administration's most serious surveillance reforms to date, administration officials quoted Monday in The New York Times deemed the changes "modest," as many of the reforms mentioned during Obama's Justice Department speech a year ago remain unaddressed.

For instance, last year Obama called for an end to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the NSA its legal authority to conduct mass surveillance of metadata on all calls, which includes phone numbers and timestamps. The new reforms, however, make no mention of ending the collection of metadata.

Section 215 is among three provisions in the Patriot Act that are set to expire in June. While privacy advocates look forward to its expiration, many expect the Republican-controlled Congress to cite terrorism concerns as a reason to renew the law.

"While we welcome the release of more information about the NSA's surveillance activities and efforts to put in place enhanced protections, the proposed reforms do no more than tinker around the edges," Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberty Union's Washington Legislative Office, said Tuesday.

"The documents clearly show that the government continues to stand by a number of its troubling mass surveillance policies, despite mounting evidence that many of these programs are ineffective," Guliani added. "The report released today underscores the need for action by Congress and the courts to fully reform the NSA."