WASHINGTON (CN) - President Barack Obama announced "new limits" Friday on how the United States will use secretly mass-collected phone data, emphasizing the aim of detecting and countering terrorism and five other areas of national security.
In addition to threats from terrorism, the data will be used to fight espionage by foreign powers or their intelligence services against the United States and its interests; and against the development, possession, proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction.
Such data will also be used to squelch cybersecurity threats, threats to U.S. armed forces and threats of transnational crime, Obama said.
"These limits are intended to protect the privacy and civil liberties of all persons, whatever their nationality and regardless of where they might reside," a directive from the White House states.
That directive is described as an articulation of the "principles to guide why, whether, when, and how the United States conducts signals intelligence activities for authorized foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes."
"In no event may signals intelligence collected in bulk be used for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent; disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion; affording a competitive advantage to U.S. companies and U.S. business sectors commercially; or achieving any purpose other than those identified in this section," the directive states.
Obama's announcement comes seven months after Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Administration, leaked top-secret orders revealing the existence of the once-secret domestic surveillance program.
One such order forced Verizon to "turn over, every day, metadata about the calls made by each of its subscribers over the three-month period ending on July 19, 2013."
The constitutionality of America's spying efforts has split the courts. U.S. District Judge William Pauley III in Manhattan sided with the federal government when he tossed the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit seeking to block the surveillance practices, saying that the prevention of terrorist attacks trumped Americans' rights to privacy.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., ruled that the NSA's data-collection practices constitute an "arbitrary invasion" on Americans' privacy. Pending appeal, he nevertheless stayed an order that would force the government to stop its dragnet program and destroy all information it had collected.
European officials have also chimed in. The European Commission called for the transatlantic adoption of data protection reform laws to protect users' personal data. It parliament meanwhile passed continentwide data-protection legislation to ward off invasions of Internet users' privacy violations, and urged the United States to do the same.
But there is no end in sight to the signals of intelligence collection, as Obama noted Friday that such activities are "necessary for the United States to advance its national security and foreign policy interests and to protect its citizens and the citizens of its allies and partners from harm."
Obama emphasized that "U.S. signals intelligence activities must ... include appropriate safeguards for the personal information of all individuals, regardless of the nationality of the individual to whom the information pertains or where that individual resides."
Giving U.S. business a competitive advantage represents improper use of the data for the White House.
The directive urges the intelligence community to "prioritize" gathering information from diplomatic or public sources, rather than from collected signals.
Obama added that any "statute or executive order, proclamation, or other presidential directive" must authorize any collection of signals intelligence.
"The assistant to the president and national security advisor (APNSA), in consultation with the director of national intelligence (DNI), shall coordinate, on at least an annual basis, a review of the permissible uses of signals intelligence collected in bulk through the National Security Council principals and deputies committee system," the directive states.
Obama said he will then conclude the review by going over "recommended additions to or removals from the list of the permissible uses of signals intelligence collected in bulk."
A status report from the DNI is due in 180 days, describing implementation of various safeguards outlined in the directive "to minimize the dissemination and retention of personal information collected from signals intelligence activities."
Without a determination or express exemption from the DNI because of national security interests, the United States should not retain information for more than five years, according to the directive.
This time next year, the U.S. intelligence community must update or issue new policies to implement the safeguards, Obama added.
The president's Intelligence Advisory Board meanwhile has 120 days to advise Obama as to "options for assessing the distinction between metadata and other types of information, and for replacing the 'need-to-share' or 'need-to-know' models for classified information sharing with a work-related access model."
One digital rights group fighting to curb the surveillance questioned whether Obama's directive goes far enough.
"The president took several steps toward reforming NSA surveillance, but there's still a long way to go," Cindy Cohn, the legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a statement. "Now it's up to the courts, Congress, and the public to ensure that real reform happens, including stopping all bulk surveillance - not just telephone records collection. Other necessary reforms include requiring prior judicial review of national security letters and ensuring the security and encryption of our digital tools, but the president's speech made no mention of these.
Katitza Rodriguez, the EFF's international rights director, likewise pressured for more action.
"It was encouraging to see the president recognize the privacy rights of people around the world," said International Rights Director Katitza Rodriguez. "However, the details of Obama's plans to actually protect those privacy rights must conform with international human rights law, specifically that suspicion is necessary to target non-US person for surveillance."
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