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Obama’s new measures won’t limit government spying

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Despite President Obama directing his administration to reform U.S. surveillance programs in order to make the intelligence community more transparent, spying will continue unabated.

While his new guidance to the U.S. intelligence community declares that the United States must not collect intelligence “for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, or for disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion”, the continued widespread electronic collection of intelligence will go on.

Obama’s administration is only proposing to limit its intelligence collection on dozens of foreign heads of state that the U.S. deem as friends and allies. The rest of us will continue to be caught up in the dragnet of a vast surveillance effort that violates personal privacy.  This is because Obama has not proposed unilaterally ending programs that can perform extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information, such e-mail, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP chats such as Skype, file transfers, and social networking details.

Nor has the U.S. proposed to end the collection of phone metadata, which can reveal a trove of information, including, for example, the location and telephone numbers of all calls a person makes and receives.

All that Obama has proposed is for a secret court to provide additional permission before intelligence agencies gain access to sensitive materials such as Web and phone metadata, and that greater advocacy for civil liberties occur before the court, through an independent panel of privacy experts, during “significant cases”.

These changes will not end the egregious, unconstitutional violation of Americans’ privacy, stop the suspicion-less surveillance of citizens, or end the era of secret courts.  Nor will Obama’s proposals stop the use of “Big Data” technologies that spy on citizens.  In fact, last year, the  White House accelerated the use of Big Data techniques by allowing intelligence agencies to collate information about citizens from diverse sources, such as state and local government databases, flight records, casino-employee lists, and immigration records that incorporate personal and sensitive biometric data. The government will quicken its efforts to analyze these numerous data sources, in order to develop “predictive pattern-matching” techniques to determine “suspicious” patterns of behavior.

Using Big Data algorithms, the intelligence community is determined to link government databases with more innocuous information, collected from public sources, such as the Internet and other public records.  With an acceleration of such efforts, regular citizens can expect a complete loss of anonymity and can expect to be tracked at unprecedented rates by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, without warrant, and with lack of effective, transparent, external and independent oversight.

Examples of the use of such tactics by the U.S. government abound, and include Edward Snowden’s description of PRISM, a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program known to have been operated by the National Security Agency (NSA); and the much written about TrapWire, the system which digitally records video at surveillance points in major cities and landmarks across the United States and instantaneously delivers intelligence information to a fortified central database center at an undisclosed location.

Unfortunately, other locales are adopting these “wide net” style intelligence approaches.  Most notably, in Canada, intelligence agencies were recently revealed to have secretly tested the clandestine collection of traveler metadata at an international airport through free Wi-Fi connections.

The public reaction of both these respective governments has been predictable: In the wake of 9/11 and proceeding terrorist threats, enhanced surveillance is justified and can be perceived as extraordinary, but not extrajudicial or unconstitutional.

Civil libertarians, however, rightly oppose this view, having determined such surveillance is an affront to freedom, dignity and the expectation of law-abiding citizens in free and democratic societies.  A contributing remedy to such government heavy handedness should be the use of more effective security methodologies to counteract terrorism, especially at ports of entry.  Instead of “wide net” style intelligence, governments should entertain using more refined tactics as enhanced personal interaction, criminal profiling and the use of biometric embedded travel documents at airports, rather than opting to spying on the traveling public writ large through free Wi-Fi

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