Do Recommendations From White House Panel On NSA Go Far Enough?

A review panel convened by the White House released its report on surveillance by the National Security Agency Wednesday. Among concerns the task force has are NSA practices that some say deliberately weaken America's cyber security. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been critical about surveillance activities, and Mark Rumold, staff attorney for the organization, tells Audie Cornish about the pros and cons of the panel's recommendations.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Among concerns the task force has are NSA practices that some say take advantage of weaknesses in America's cyber security. The digital civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been critical of such activities. Mark Rumold is a staff attorney with the foundation. He works on their transparency project. And he joins us now from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

MARK RUMOLD: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, your organization has actually sued the government over bulk surveillance. Given that, which of these reforms to you goes the longest way in addressing some of your concerns?

RUMOLD: Well, you know, the one that jumps right off the page is the panel's recommendation that the NSA's collection of American call records, in its current form, has to end. They found that it was not effective and that the risk that the program posed to American civil liberties was simply too great to justify its current operation.

CORNISH: At the same time, the report doesn't necessarily call for, say, in the situation of call records, it doesn't call for that program to end, right? It essentially recommends that telecommunication companies keep that data in a kind of ready-to-go format to respond to federal court orders. But they are outsourcing the phone data storage to private companies. Is that any better?

RUMOLD: Right. Well, so it suggests that it should end in its current form, with the NSA maintaining the call records database. But it's EFF's position that mandatory data retention in any form, be it call record retention or email retention, any type of data retention is problematic. It doesn't matter who is doing the storing. And in some respects, it could almost be worst to have phone companies stories this data because then it opens up access to other law enforcement agencies, potentially, or even to civil litigation. So you could, you know, if you were getting a divorce, you could subpoena records from this call database. And, you know, that's an encroachment on American's privacy, too, and it's simply not an adequate response to the problem.

CORNISH: We've also heard from critics in the tech industry who've accused the NSA of essentially using and abusing security flaws, right? Coercing software developers to install backdoors. Which of these recommendations addresses that concern and do you think it's enough?

RUMOLD: So the panel's recommendation on encryption is probably the most unambiguous and full-throated defense of tools that both enhance privacy and enhance our security. So the debate is often couched in terms of figuring out the balance between national security and privacy. But it's not always the case that they're mutually exclusive. And encryption is a perfect example of that. Encryption is a way that we can both secure and maintain the privacy of our communications. And the panel recommended that the intelligence community's practices of undermining encryption standards, of undermining the security in software, and those practices must end. And it also recommended that the intelligence community should encourage the use of encryption among companies and among Americans.

CORNISH: What do you see reflected in these suggest reforms? Does it actually make future mass surveillance harder? Does it institutionalize the surveillance system?

RUMOLD: Right. So another one of our concerns was that the recommendations didn't go far enough to condemn outright the bulk collection of communication records. There's a lot of...

CORNISH: But are you really expecting that? I mean, given what you've heard from the White House, what you've heard from President Obama?

RUMOLD: Yeah. Well, there's no evidence that we've seen so far that the bulk collection of communication records is a valuable tool. So there's certainly no reason to do it. And the risk to civil liberties are simply too great to continue.

CORNISH: What are you hearing from the White House? I mean, when you look at their response, do you get the sense that they're taking this seriously, seriously enough for your concerns?

RUMOLD: Well, I think so. You know, they only got the report last week. I was actually heartened that they released it. You know, they're - a year ago, I wouldn't have been surprised if a report like this had been entirely classified and not released to the public. But this was, you know, it was released in full, and the White House said they're going to take the recommendations under consideration. And, you know, I think, at this point, we have to take that statement at face value and hope that the president will, in turn, implement many of these reforms.

CORNISH: Mark Rumold. He is the staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Thank you so much.

RUMOLD: Thanks, Audie.

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