Obama tries to draw a line. Is it thick enough?


From intrusion to redemption, Barack Obama’s landmark speech about NSA surveillance and future of digital privacy aimed to quell people’s apprehensions about superpower’s snooping actions.

US have been in the eye of a whirling debate on snooping people’s data. It was a matter of huge furor and controversy when in early June 2013, Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor leaked to the media the details of an extensive internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence.

The leak led to a global uproar and debate on American intrusion into people’s data, and it continues to create ripples. There have been many developments around the issue, recent being US President Barack Obama’s decision to take a step back and loosening the government’s fist on surveillance at home and abroad. In a key address on Friday, 17th January, 2013, Obama proclaimed that he, “must maintain the trust of the American people, and people around the world,” but to what extent was he able to redeem himself remains in question.

Obama said he favors new rules restricting the warehousing, collection and use of Americans’ communication picked up under surveillance authorities.  He also recommended the elimination of government’s massive collection of phone records while retaining its capability to learn from those records. Obama also made a crucial announcement in respect to snooping other world leaders.

He also asked lawmakers to create a panel of attorneys who could argue “significant” cases before the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court independent of the government. However, he didn’t map out how will they dump the phone records and what qualify for a “significant” case. The president also underlined, “The challenge is getting the details right, and that’s not simple.”

But there were many things which Obama gave a miss in this much followed address through which he intended to restore trust in the National Security Agency and his capability to strike a balance between privacy interests of people and national security. One of such issues was about reforms to scrap data stored on cloud services such as online word processors and e-mail which are still governed by obsolete federal law. He also skipped the mention on the extent of NSA’s interference with Internet encryption standards, something which is emphatically pursued by U.S. tech companies.

U.S. president also skipped one of the major recommendations by his review panel – Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents should require court orders before issuing “national security letters” to obtain data about financial transactions and businesses’ communications. It is notable that the F.B.I. has openly resisted requiring judicial involvement in its use of the power.

Despite of all the hits and misses, Obama did strike a productive note by his address. But it would take more time, efforts, engagement and measures to reach out to skeptic Americans and other countries and organisations of the world which U.S. government reportedly snooped on.

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Zoya Rasul

The author holds a degree in engineering and currently pursuing Masters in Convergent Journalism. She is an experienced copywriter as well where she worked for a reputed Ad Agency.