Access statement on the President’s Review Group report on NSA surveillance

This afternoon the White House released “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” the report and recommendations of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. This five-person task force was convened by President Obama to assess the NSA’s communications surveillance programs and provide recommendations on reform.

Access is cautiously optimistic regarding the recommendations outlined in this report. Although we are still reviewing the more than 300 pages of analysis and recommendations, we note the following findings:

  • That “it is increasingly unclear whether the distinction between “meta-data” and other information carries much weight”;
  • That the language of ‘balancing’ civil liberties and security is “inadequate and misleading,” and that freedom of speech should not be subject to balancing “at all;”
  • That non-US persons are entitled to privacy protections, and “significant steps” should be taken towards that end; and
  • That the U.S. Government should fully support and not undermine efforts to create encryption standards.

“The President’s Review Group has joined the global consensus: the NSA programs demand immediate and comprehensive reform,” says Jochai Ben-Avie, Access Policy Director. “To fail to do so would be to continue the betrayal of our fundamental values as well as our universal rights.”

We are pleased to note that the review group’s findings echo many of the principles laid out in the International Principles for the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which Access helped develop. The points noted above demonstrate an emphasis on the respect for due process for the privacy rights of both U.S. and non-U.S. persons and the affordance of equal procedural protections to content and metadata, proportionality with regards to ‘balanced’ rights, and protections for the integrity of communications and systems in the support for encryption standards.

We also welcome the review group’s recommendations for reform of the existing bulk collection programs, specifically those authorized under PATRIOT Act Section 215. Their questioning of the exceptional nature of metadata — the premise upon which these programs are founded — is especially welcome, as it builds upon the concept of ‘protected information’ as articulated in the preamble to the International Principles. However we believe that true, rights-respecting reform requires ending these bulk collection programs entirely, as the very nature of mass surveillance violates the principles of necessity, adequacy, legitimate aim, and proportionality, as articulated in the International Principles.

The Review Group’s report further includes the following recommendations, in line with the International Principles:

  • Transparency regarding the surveillance programs and the nature and scope of government requests to providers;
  • Reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to ensure due process;
  • The introduction of a competent judicial authority in the authorization of National Security Letters and similar tools;
  • Recommendations regarding the reform of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) system, in line with the principle of safeguards for international cooperation; and
  • Specific statutory reforms for improving the existing Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which will soon be releasing its own report, while also calling for the creation of a new and empowered Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board (CLPP) in line with the principle of public oversight.

We look forward to offering further, substantive analysis following a full review of the report and its recommendations.