Just because U.S. spies can tap into Big Data, it doesn't mean they should.
That was the message of President Barack Obama's speech Friday on reforms to the nation's surveillance programs.
"Surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws," he said.
It's a message that resonates with tech companies and Internet users worldwide after disclosures that the U.S. and its allies routinely gather telephone and Internet data.
But the actions the president proposed didn't back up his rhetoric and provided little comfort to those concerned about U.S. surveillance programs.
"We'd hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more," Alex Fowler, Mozilla's leader of global privacy and policy, wrote in a blog post after the speech. "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."
Companies such as Microsoft, Google (GOOG), Facebook and others that have battled the U.S. over the government spy programs struck a more diplomatic tone, saying in a statement that the president's commitments for reform "represent positive progress on key issues" but that "crucial details remain to be addressed" and "additional steps are needed on other important issues."
Here are some of the key reforms the president addressed:
1. Bulk data collection.
Mass collection of U.S. telephone data will continue, even though the president said he was ending the current program. Under his plan, instead of the government holding the data, it would be housed by a third company or the telephone companies themselves, something they have rejected. The president said there would be more legal hoops for government to jump through than currently exist when it wants access to the data.
Nowhere did Obama mention limits on the bulk collection of Internet data, something that the government has done in the past and could do again. U.S. tech firms argue that there shouldn't be any bulk data collection unless the government is concerned about individual suspects.
2. Privacy rights for foreigners.
The president said he has asked government agencies to create safeguards for limiting the amount of time the U.S. can hold personal information.
It remains to be seen how the president's protections for foreigners will operate along with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which gives the U.S. wide latitude when surveilling foreigners.
"Did the president's speech do enough for an international U.S. company to be able to say to their users that their data will not be put in the NSA's hands?" Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told me this morning. "I don't think he said that."
The president didn't mention reports, including one from his independent review panel, that the NSA exploits vulnerabilities in U.S. tech firms' technology and works to weaken encryption.
He didn't mention various NSA programs as disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that involve tapping into U.S. company property or data cables to grab data.
The president promised that "communications providers" will be able to make public more information than they ever have about government orders they receive for user data. But what that means is unclear. Companies have lobbied and sued to be allowed to reveal more information about when the government comes knocking at their doors for user data.
5. Panel of outside privacy advocates.
In his speech, the president called on Congress to authorize a panel of advocates from outside government "to ensure that the court hears a broader range of privacy perspectives." This is something the tech firms have asked for as well.
The president's message was one of reining in the national surveillance programs' abilities in the age of Big Data. The coming months will prove how serious he is.
Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.