Privacy Advocates Unhappy With Obama's NSA Changes

President Obama laid out his ideas for reforming the National Security Agency's surveillance programs on Friday. In the wake of his speech, NPR's Lynn Neary talks with Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to understand objections that remain for privacy advocates.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

On June 5th last year, the world was introduced to Edward Snowden and in detailed newspaper articles to the way the NSA conducts surveillance on the phone and Internet records of Americans and foreign citizens. Now months later, President Obama gave his most sweeping response yet to those revelations. In a speech yesterday at the Justice Department, he largely defended the NSA's telephone data gathering strategies, but he also acknowledged the need to protect civil liberties, announcing changes to how he wants that telephone metadata stored and accessed.

Cindy Cohn is the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, and she joins us now from San Francisco. Welcome to the program, Cindy.

CINDY COHN: Thank you.

NEARY: Now, it seems that the President wanted to accomplish two things in his speech. First, he wanted to defend the program as it was conceived, but he also wanted to, I think, give some assurance to those who have been calling for privacy protections. Do you think he succeeded on those two fronts?

COHN: I think he did try. It's as marked change in tone from where he started in June. I think he's still got a long way to go before he restores the trust of the American people. I think that the NSA has so clearly outstripped its boundaries in so many different directions that there's a lot to do to try to reign it back into the organization that I think most Americans could support.

NEARY: The President did say that he wants eventually to move the storage of the bulk data out of government hands. Now, is that a satisfactory solution?

COHN: Well, it's good that he wants to end the program as it is currently, but no, you know, the government shouldn't be able to outsource mass surveillance anymore than it should be able to handle it in-house. What we need to do is we need to end mass surveillance and require the NSA to have some level of suspicion before it gets to even have custody of our communications and communications records.

The gather-it-all-up-first and then sort-out-second, whether there's anybody who's done anything bad in their strategy is the thing that we really have to stop if we're going to restore trust in the NSA.

NEARY: You know, the President said that he has no indication that intelligence agencies are abusing surveillance power. It doesn't sound like you would agree with that.

COHN: What the President's saying is, well, nobody intentionally abused it. I don't think that the American people, you know, I think that we don't want abuse, not that we don't want intentional abuse, and you know, we learned this term called love int - love intelligence - which was the NSA analyst spying on their exes. We know that they misdialed and somehow managed to spy on all of Washington, D.C. rather than Egypt. You know, even if it's not intentional, I don't think it's fair to say that the program is always worked perfectly.

NEARY: You know, it's very clear, as we said at the beginning, that there's two very compelling interests that the President is trying to balance here, and you know, one of the things he said in his speech is that even privacy advocates, you know, such as yourself, want protection from another 9/11. So how do you find that very delicate balance?

COHN: The reports are consistently that the agencies had all the information that they needed. It wasn't that they needed more information; it's that they didn't do a very good job sharing the information in the way that would be most useful to stop the attack. That's what the president's review committee said, that's what Richard Clarke says, it's what people across the spectrum have said. So of course we want to be safe from another terrorist attack, but that doesn't mean that every technique that the NSA wants to do actually gets us there.

NEARY: Cindy Cohn is the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She joined us from San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us, Cindy.

COHN: Thank you.

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