In a significant revamp of its intelligence activities, the US on Friday announced foreigners will have the same safeguards against privacy infringement as its own citizens. The US will not snoop on leaders of “close friends and allies”.
“I will pick up the phone and call them,” said President Barack Obama announcing the new measures.
“People around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account. This applies to foreign leaders as well. Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that – unless there is a compelling national security purpose – we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”
India’s internet users and missions were among the National Security Agency’s (NSA) top targets, though it’s still not clear if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was being spied on too, like Germany’s Angela Merkel.
In a widely anticipated speech, President Obama sought to address privacy concerns raised at home and abroad by revelations based on Edward Snowden’s leaks.
At home, the NSA’s programmes will be subjected to increased oversight and measures restricting the agency’s access to the collected data, which, however, will continue without any changes.
Obama defended the NSA’s programme collecting metadata on phone calls — just the numbers and the duration of the call, not the content, saying, “The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11.”
One of the 9/11 hijackers had made a call to an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen, from San Diego. “NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States,” said Obama.
The NSA will continue to collect that data, but, starting Friday, it will no longer store them, which will be done elsewhere, not determined yet. He has given the agencies 60 days to figure that out.
Also, starting Friday, the NSA will not be able to access the stored data at will. Every query will have to be cleared by a secret court established under the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The president said he will also ask congress to create a panel of advocates from outside the government to “provide an independent voice in significant cases” before the FISA courts.
At the same time, private service providers who have pushed back on government’s request for information on traffic coursing through their servers, will now be authorised to reveal more of these requests than before. These requests, coming in National Security Letters, will not be required to be kept secret forever.