Skip to main content

Obama sets good course on privacy debate

By Marc Rotenberg
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 2321 GMT (0721 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marc Rotenberg: President gave a historic speech about NSA reforms
  • Rotenberg: Give Obama credit in signaling a new direction on civil liberties, security
  • He says but Obama has not said enough yet to assure those outside the U.S.
  • Rotenberg: The U.S. should be the world's leader on freedom, not surveillance

Editor's note: Marc Rotenberg is president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center in Washington. He teaches law at Georgetown University.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama gave a historic speech on Friday. After months of revelations about the extraordinary surveillance capabilities of the U.S. government -- and the National Security Agency in particular -- the President promised to end the bulk collection of telephone records by the NSA and to put in place new safeguards for privacy protection of U.S. citizens and those outside the country.

Let's give Obama credit for signaling a new direction in the ongoing discussion over civil liberties and security. It is a good thing, one that should lead to greater freedom and security. Obama has stopped treating the Snowden revelations as a public relations issue and chose instead to pursue the hard work of reform and new protections.

As Obama acknowledged, intelligence collection is necessary to a nation's security, and to all countries in identifying threats. But at some point, programs become too vast, concerns about their direction arise, and changes must be made. Just because the government can do something with technology does not mean it should.

Obama also announced the establishment of a public interest advocate at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that has authorized the vast surveillance program. The advocate will provide an opportunity for the judges to hear from someone opposed to the surveillance program. Only after hearing both sides of the argument will the judges make a decision.

Marc Rotenberg
Marc Rotenberg

In addition, there are plans to improve oversight of National Security Letters -- a secretive process for obtaining access to business records about customers. "NSLs" have become a favorite of the law enforcement community post-9/11 and have caused real concern among civil libertarians across the political spectrum. Obama said notification procedures would be established and there would be more openness. This is not as much as some had hoped, but still it goes further than was expected.

Finally, Obama said he would create a new panel to assess the impact of "Big Data" on personal privacy. The phrase may be cliché, but the problem is real. Increasingly data -- and also metadata -- reveal an extraordinary amount of personal information. We need a better approach, with technologists and legal scholars, and a deeper engagement from the White House and Congress, to make meaningful progress on this critical issue.

Civil libertarians are welcoming Obama's proposals. From the start, we had urged the end of the NSA telephone record program. We had also pushed for reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, more oversight and accountability for government conduct, and a greater willingness to engage a meaningful debate on the impact that technology is having on privacy and freedom.

Greenwald: Obama's reforms are cosmetic
Assange: Leakers forced NSA reforms
Assange: It is 'embarrassing' for Obama

For those outside the United States, the takeaway will be more mixed. Yes, it is good that the U.S. President has agreed to stop listening in on the calls of foreign allies, narrow the focus of the U.S. data collection overseas, and extend legal safeguards to non-U.S. citizens.

But still, a larger problem remains for the United States. For many years the United States has pushed aggressively against efforts in other countries to update data protection laws and put in place new privacy safeguards. Washington spent the last several years assuring Europeans that its system of "self-regulation" for the private sector coupled with "vigorous oversight" of government surveillance provides meaningful protection.

The documents released by Edward Snowden tell a very different story -- of insufficient oversight, private sector collaboration, and technologies of surveillance gone largely out of control. In some instances it was clear that the NSA was actually undermining standards necessary for Internet security. Several of the recently released court opinions also suggest that the NSA itself did not know what data it was collecting.

It will not be easy to rein in these powers or to fully understand the consequences of the technologies the U.S. government has embraced.

In other words, Obama has not said enough yet to assure those outside the United States that the NSA will not continue to monitor their activities. He also did not fully embrace the efforts under way in many countries to strengthen the right to privacy.

A relevant historical reference for the President in the surveillance debate is the FBI monitoring of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. opponents of the war in Vietnam. Today the reality is that the NSA gathers vast amounts of data on political leaders, private firms and human rights campaigners outside the United States. Obama will need to do much more to make clear that intelligence collection is not a blank check to conduct surveillance on other nations.

Obama has several opportunities coming up to say more about what he will to do to protect privacy, widely viewed around the world as a fundamental human right. This year the State of the Union falls on January 28, International Privacy Day, a day that marks the creation of the most well-known international framework for privacy protection.

The United States should be the world's leader on freedom, not surveillance.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marc Rotenberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT