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On January 17, 2014, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the US Department of Justice about US electronic surveillance practices. Below is the reaction from Human Rights Watch:


President Obama today announced a number of welcome reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs, but fell short on core human rights concerns: the collection of data in bulk on people worldwide, including in the US, and giving foreigners clear rights against unwarranted US surveillance. 

Specifically, on the bulk metadata collection program, the President said that bulk telephone metadata should no longer be held by the government. But we don’t know the details of how the program will move out of government hands, and it remains to be seen whether this is a viable option. Further, significant questions remain as to why collection en masse is still necessary to begin with given that mass collection by the NSA has not proven necessary to prevent any terrorist attacks. In addition, the President said nothing about any other bulk collection programs that could be happening under Section 215.

The president did announce two important but interim measures: querying will be subject to judicial oversight and collection will be limited to two “hops” from the target, not three. 

We are glad to see that the president acknowledged that the US needs to respect privacy, no matter where individuals are located. But the reforms he laid out only limit uses of information collected. The proposals do very little to limit collection, leaving the door open to continued indiscriminate surveillance of people abroad. We agree that how this information is used must be better brought in line with the standards applied to US persons, but stronger safeguards must apply to collection as well. Moreover, nothing in his speech or directive hinted at giving people abroad any right that would be enforceable to protect their privacy. 

Most of the protections Obama announced today apply only to how and when the NSA and others can look at the data. What’s the guarantee that US snooping on those communications will be limited to real national security concerns? It’s not clear from Obama’s speech. We doubt people in Germany or Brazil or even the US are going to be satisfied with some new hard-to-assess checks on how US intelligence uses information but no change in the fact that the US is collecting information on hundreds of millions of people in the first place.

In today’s world where 150 billion emails crisscross the globe daily it makes no sense to have different standards based on geographic distinctions or nationality. The internet is borderless. Those outside US borders have the same interest and the same rights to privacy as those within. The US needs to recognize this or it will give a green light for other governments to engage in mass surveillance.

The notion that it is somehow proper to collect vast swaths of communications from people around the globe and then only put unknown limits on how that information is queried must be questioned. The concept is still entirely arbitrary and indiscriminate. Millions of people are dependent upon the internet for daily communications. The US shouldn’t use its position of dominance in global internet communications to justify this mass invasion of privacy rights or it will quickly lose that position.

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