Response to President Obama’s Speech on Surveillance

Alex Fowler

Expansive government surveillance practices have severely damaged the health of the open Internet, creating calls for change from diverse organizations around the world along with hundreds of thousands of Internet users. President Obama’s speech on surveillance reform provided the first clear signs of the Administration’s response.

Overall, the strategy seems to be to leave current intelligence processes largely intact and improve oversight to a degree. We’d hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more. Without a meaningful change of course, the Internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity.

From our perspective as both an Internet company and a global community of users and developers, we’re concerned that the President didn’t address the most glaring reform needs. The President’s Review Board made 46 recommendations for surveillance reform, and some of the most important pieces are being ignored or punted to further review.

The Administration missed a compelling opportunity to:

  • Endorse legislative reform to limit surveillance, such as the USA FREEDOM Act and ECPA reform efforts;
  • Propose reforms on encouraging, promoting, or supporting backdoors;
  • End efforts to undermine security standards and protocols; and
  • Adequately protect the privacy rights of foreign citizens with no connection to intelligence, military, or terrorist activity.

The speech also didn’t raise one of the most important issues determining the future of government surveillance and privacy: the priorities of the next director of the NSA. If a culture of unlimited data gathering above all else persists, legal reforms and improved technological protections will be watered down over time and will never be enough to restore trust to the Internet. Internet users around the world would be well served if the next director of the NSA makes transparency and human rights a true priority. In Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted words, “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

The President’s speech did include one important reform that supports a healthy, trustable Internet: creating a new public advocate for privacy within the specialized intelligence court, FISA. Such an oppositional element is essential to ensure meaningful rule of law over government surveillance practices, in any context. In the U.S., where 99% of FISA court decisions ultimately favor the government, it seems particularly overdue.

Some of the Administration’s other ideas carry mixed benefits and harms for the future of the Open Internet. Limiting the scale of some bulk collection programs helps, to a small degree. But it does not justify the continuation of practices that significantly undermine privacy. The plan to work with Congress on alternative ways to sustain bulk collection through third parties or alternative storage may similarly create more harm. Third-party storage could allow for an additional layer of legal process and increase the practical cost of using the data, creating some safety measures and incentives against abuse. But those third parties might store it insecurely or unreliably, posing significant risk for both the intelligence mission and the communication subjects’ privacy.

At Mozilla, we’ve worked to protect privacy and trust online through many angles:

We’re going to keep working on this, pushing for meaningful change to surveillance practices and security technologies to help restore trust and support the open Internet around the world. We expect the President’s speech to be a floor for reform, not a ceiling, and we will make our positions known to Congress and the Administration. But we’ll need your help. For starters, you can join the movement at StopWatching.Us — and keep watching this page for more opportunities to make your voice heard.

Alex Fowler, Global Privacy & Policy Leader
Chris Riley, Senior Policy Engineer