Obama's NSA Advisory Board: No More Phone Records, No More Backdoors

By Adam Clark Estes on at

The wait is almost over! Despite having said it would come out in January, the Obama Administration hustled and released a report from the advisory committee set up to recommend changes to the NSA. And, my, are those changes many.

The report outlines over 40 recommendations to modify the NSA's counterterrorism program. They run the gamut from headline-grabbing issues, like the agency's collection of phone metadata, to the specific tasks the NSA is responsible for. While Obama himself has addressed some of these issue in the six months since Edward Snowden's leak, the hasty release of the advisory committee's recommendations arrives just two days after a federal judge said that the NSA's collection of phone records may be unconstitutional. Obama met with five members of the review board on Wednesday morning before the press secretary announced the release of the report. According to one official, the suggested changes to the NSA are "significantly more far-reaching than many expected."

Lucky for us, a few anonymous sources with knowledge of the report were willing to let the big news leak a few hours before the release of the report. We collected the more major changes and made a neat little list for you. It will be up to Obama to decide which recommendations to heed and which to ignore, but it'll be a little while before we get the final say. In the meantime, stand by for the full report.

No More Phone Database at NSA:
Well, you should've seen this one coming. As the NSA's collection of telephone records and metadata is one of the most offensive revelations of unwarranted government surveillance ever, it's nice that the advisory board would like to change how that works. The report recommends that the NSA no longer be responsible for this sort of thing. They're not getting rid of a phone database altogether, though. They'd just prefer that the phone companies or a third party—perhaps one set up for this explicit purpose—keep the records.

No More 'Backdoors':
Remember back when we learned that the NSA had tapped into the databases of pretty much every internet company out there? Well, the very sensible advisory committee would like that to stop. Per their recommendations, the NSA can't ask companies to give them a way to access encrypted data. They're also prohibited, in The Washington Post's words, "from stockpiling 'zero day' hacking tools that can be used to penetrate computer systems, and in some cases, damage or destroy them." This is super-good news for global internet security which the NSA was undermining by sneaking into all those websites.

No More Watching Over Classified Computer Systems:
The NSA would be relieved of its role guarding classified government computer systems. This would help to keep the agency on the offense. Inevitably, the NSA is tasked with gaining access to foreign computer systems, and the committee thinks that keeping defensive roles out of its purview will help it do a better job. However, President Obama has already decided that one person will oversee both the NSA and its counterpart in the Pentagon—known as Cyber Command—whose mission is both offensive and defensive. [NYT, Washington Post]