Surveillance Tweaks Illustrate Little Change After Snowden


The Obama administration has announced a series of modest changes in how private data that is collected for intelligence purposes may  be used, a move that underscores how little the Edward Snowden revelations have impeded the National Security Agency’s exploitation of global communications.

Eighteen months after the first Snowden-fueled news story, and one year after President Obama delivered a major speech calling for changes to NSA data collection, the White House on Tuesday said it had tightened rules governing how the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies use internet and phone communications of foreigners collected by the NSA. But the bulk collection would continue as robustly as ever, the announcement made clear.

Where once the data could be used for any reason and held forever, now it must fall into six specific threat categories and irrelevant data is to be purged after five years. But the categories are broad enough that an intelligence officer could find justification to use a piece of information on a foreigner if he or she feels the need. The information need only have some relevance to counter-espionage, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cybersecurity, countering threats to U.S. or allied armed forces or personnel; and combating transnational criminal threats.

The new policy also imposes more supervision over how intelligence agencies use the communications of Americans they acquire without individual warrants, making clear, for example, that such data may only be used to prosecute someone for “serious crimes” such as a murder or kidnapping, or national security crimes.

But the changes stopped well short of the recommendations of a presidential task force, including one that data collected by the NSA without warrants should never be used against an American in court.

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