BuzzFeed News

Reporting To You


President Obama Announces Changes To Domestic Phone Surveillance Program

Reforms and proposed reforms to the current program.

Posted on January 17, 2014, at 1:22 p.m. ET

"I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk meta-data."

WASHINGTON — President Obama promised changes to America's intelligence system Friday, the first slate of reforms he has proposed since the first disclosures about U.S. intelligence practices by Edward Snowden last year.

Critics of the National Security Agency and supporters of Snowden are skeptical that the list will mean much in terms of improving privacy, but administration officials insist the reforms are sweeping.

Here's a rundown of what Obama announced:

The NSA will no longer be able to access cell phone metadata without court supervision.

A senior administration official told reporters Friday that the workflow for the average NSA agent using cell phone metadata is different after Obama's speech.

NSA metadata tracking will now only apply to "two hops" instead of three.

Obama announced that NSA operatives will only track metadata for a target and those two degrees removed from that target. The current standard is "three hops." Implementing the change may take time, the president said.

"I've ordered that the transition away from the existing program will proceed in two steps," he said. "Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.

Obama called for the government to no longer house the NSA's collected metadata.

Obama also ordered the intelligence community and the attorney general to develop options for program that would be able to match the capabilities of the program that currently collects data, but not have the government house metadata records.

Options for a new program are expected to be given to the president by March 28, when the current program is up for reauthorization.

"Dozens" of foreign leaders will be off the American wiretap list.

Senior White House officials told reporters in the run-up to Obama's speech that "dozens" of world leaders will no longer be subject to U.S. surveillance.

"It's not just a case of Angela Merkel," an official said of the German chancellor, whom Snowden revealed Americans were closely surveilling. "We determined we will not produce surveillance on dozens of leaders."

In his speech, Obama didn't mention Merkel but promised America's allies will be treated differently by the nation's intelligence agencies from now on.

"Heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners," Obama said.

Secret court judges will get an assist when it comes to understanding technology.

Advocates have suggested Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judges need independent help from tech experts and privacy advocates when it comes to understanding the complicated data collection programs like the NSA program collecting billions of cell phone metadata records. The White House did not sign on to the suggested privacy advocate role, but signaled potential support for some kind of tech expert role.

"The president also proposed creating a panel of advocates on privacy and technology issues who would appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, but it raised questions," The New York Times reported. "A senior official said the advocates would be called on only in 'novel' cases, rather than in every case. Left unanswered is who would decide which cases are novel."

John Podesta will lead a new panel aimed at improving privacy protections.

Podesta, the new White House counselor, will head up what Obama called a sweeping look at data collection by the nation's intelligence agencies and its potential to violate privacy rights.

"This group will consist of government officials who — along with the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders, and look at how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security," Obama said in his speech according to prepared remarks.

Support our journalism

Help BuzzFeed News reporters expose injustices and keep quality news free.