President Obama to propose "self-restraint" on NSA

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Obama image couresy of Filip Fuxa / ShutterstockWithout going into detail, US President Barack Obama has said that he'll propose "some self-restraint" to the National Security Agency (NSA) in order to rein in rampant snooping.

In an interview with Chris Matthews recorded for MSNBC's "Hardball" on Thursday, Obama defended the intelligence agency, saying that it's keeping its nose clean at home, at least:

The NSA actually does a very good job about not engaging in domestic surveillance, not reading people's emails, not listening to the contents of their phone calls. Outside of our borders, the NSA's more aggressive. It's not constrained by laws.

The president pointed to an outside panel that he set up to look into how the government was collecting surveillance data in the big-data era.

In the fall, he said that the Feds were undergoing a complete review of how US intelligence operates outside of the country.

The findings are due to Obama by 15 December.

But he's already set to rein in the NSA, he says (if self-restraint can actually be considered a curb of powers, that is):

I'll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA and to initiate some reforms to give people more confidence. … [given that US persons] rightly are sensitive to needs to preserve their privacy and to maintain internet freedom, and so am I.

The Hardball interview came on the heels of last Wednesday's revelations that the NSA is tracking hundreds of millions of mobile phone locations worldwide, feeding a massive database full of people's location and relationship data at the rate of nearly 5 billion records every day.

During the interview, Obama asserted that "we do have people who are trying to hurt us," but added that with oversight from Congress and from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which oversees requests for data from intelligence agencies, security needs can be balanced with privacy rights.

Many now view that balance as completely askew. Is there any self-restraint the president can propose to the NSA that will redress it? Any limits or increased oversight?

Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute as well as a privacy and digital-rights lawyer and advocate, thinks not.

As he told US News, there's little short of an end to the NSA's bulk data collection that could fix this mess:

Rather than allowing the NSA to engage in mass surveillance to collect everyone's data and then decide who to target, the president should ensure that the NSA engages only in targeted surveillance; that is, first, deciding who to target and then collecting only their data.

True leadership in this moment would be for President Obama to say to the American people and to the rest of the world, 'I am putting an end to the NSA's bulk collection programs, because it is contrary to the American way to treat every person who uses the telephone or the internet like a terrorism suspect.'

In the meantime, a number of proposals aiming to increase transparency and oversight of the NSA have been put forward by members of Congress, including the Freedom Act in the House and Senate, which would end bulk data collection.

Do any of these proposals - legislation that attempts to curb the NSA's data collection and/or propose new oversight, whatever self-restraint Obama proposes - stand a chance when it comes to reining in surveillance run amok?

Or would it require a full stop to bulk data collection? Do you think that intelligence operators are even capable of stopping the use of the powerful analytics tools they've created?

Is the lid off of this Pandora's box for good, to the detriment of privacy?

Your thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

Image of Obama courtesy of Filip Fuxa /

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12 Responses to President Obama to propose "self-restraint" on NSA

  1. Freida Gray · 668 days ago

    Isn't that a lot like the police imposing self restraint proposals on the criminals they arrest?

  2. Ed · 668 days ago

    Self restraint is a joke, right?

    Reminds me of a line in a song: "With the poison of a junkie's broken promise on his lips..." Tom Waits

  3. anonymous · 667 days ago

    Freedom is dangerous.

  4. Gavin · 667 days ago

    Does the Obama administration (and whatever powers he is being pressured by) really think we're that blindingly stupid as to buy even ONE WORD of this claptrap? The sheer arrogance of this posture, while sadly not longer surprising in the least, is so maddening. I want to hit my head against a wall!

    "The NSA actually does a very good job about not engaging in domestic surveillance, not reading people's emails, not listening to the contents of their phone calls."


    So that's why the phrase "LOVEINT" was coined, precisely because of the rampant misuse of NSA agents use of this surveillance technology on their own love interests? Is that a "very good job" because it was given a pithy title such that it fits neatly into the whole dragnet culture perhaps. Oh well done!

    Disgusting. Stupid. Bald-faced lies, nothing more.

    Wow, these people must think we really are just a bunch of completely oblivious cretins. Self-restraint? Who do these idiots think they work for?

  5. Andrew · 667 days ago

    Will the NSA restrain itself no way they cannot be trusted neither can GCHQ these people are paranoid and need psychiatric help !

  6. Anonymous · 667 days ago

    Imposing self-restraint is as impossible as imposing freedom.

  7. Sam · 667 days ago

    What's the difference between the NSA and sex? Where self restraint is concerned at least with sex you'll know when its failed!

  8. Brian H. Bragg · 666 days ago

    Self-regulation. That's what Alan Greenspan expected of the Wall Street banksters who robbed us of hundreds of billions of dollars on his watch.
    Calling for self-restraint on the part of the megalomaniacal zealots who run spy agencies? That's a deeply disappointing failure of courage and leadership by our president.

  9. **FU** · 666 days ago

    I love the deference to Obama here. "oh, poor guy, he's being pressured by outside forces". He could stop this with the stroke of his pen, but of course he won't. He's already become enamored with using the levers of power to intimidate his political opponents.

    You people are going to get exactly what you deserve.

  10. Randy · 450 days ago

    Obama recommending self restraint? I don't even know where to start.

  11. Ted Byers · 433 days ago

    Self restraint for NSA is like telling you pet pit bull who in the middle of an attack on a passing stranger to: "use restraint, Rex."

  12. Randy · 427 days ago

    Obama needs to take the lead here. He can start by showing some self restraint himself.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.