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Privacy Board Urges Obama Administration to End Bulk Collection Of Phone Records

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an independent agency established by the US Congress to advise the President and other senior officials on matters related to privacy and civil liberties, has urged the Obama Administration to end the bulk collection of phone records. The board gave its views while releasing an assessment paper to mark the one year anniversary of its report on telephone surveillance. The board also alleged that the Administration has not implemented its recommendations that called for an end to surveillance and has continued with the bulk data collection program a full one year after the board submitted its report to the government and almost two years after Edward Snowden leaked details about NSA’s surveillance programs.

The PCLOB has said that the Obama Administration has not ended the collection of phone records even though the practice was constitutionally illegal and did not help the intelligence agencies with their counter-terrorism activities. The board also added that President Obama has the powers to end the surveillance at any time without needing an approval from the US Congress. It further mentioned that the current surveillance program isn’t particularly effective and it is much better to approach telecom companies on a case-by-case basis.

As per the assessment document, the Administration has accepted most of the recommendations made by the Board in its reports (the Board submitted recommendations related to Section 215 and 702 of the surveillance program) and has even made progress in implementing many of them. However, the paper also noted that the Administration is yet to stop collection of phone records (which the board recommended) and has continued with the practice with some modifications while trying to establish a regulatory framework that would allow the government to continue with the surveillance. Among other key findings, the board said that while the Administration has made good progress in implementing the recommendations related to transparency, it has not yet developed a system to evaluate the effectiveness of its counter-terrorism programs.

Intelligence agencies like NSA often defend mass surveillance by saying that the bulk data collection is necessary in the interests of national security and to prevent future terrorist attacks. However, the PCLOB countered this argument by saying that they could not identify even a single instance where the surveillance program made a concrete difference to the outcome of an investigation involving terrorist threats to the country. And while the board said that the program helped the authorities identify one terrorist suspect in the last seven years, it also added that the law enforcement agencies would have found him without needing any help from the NSA.

The publishing of PCLOB’s assessment report is a clear indication that even the government appointed privacy board doesn’t agree with the bulk collection of phone records. Since the Board doesn’t have the power to enforce its recommendations, the report is unlikely to change the government’s surveillance practices. However, the report can surely raise awareness regarding the legality and effectiveness of NSA’s phone surveillance program.

June 6, 2015

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