A Too Little, Too Late News Sandwich

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who attended a meeting at the White House this week to discuss the future of the NSA’s data collection programs with President Obama, told The Guardian that he left the meetings with the impression that “[t]he debate is clearly fluid.” In other words, he thinks there is a significant chance that Obama will decide to curtail the NSA’s bulk telephone data collection program. This is something that he, as a long-time outspoken critic of the NSA’s intrusive programs, would like to see. The Guardian also reports that another legislator who attended the meeting, Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, is the co-sponsor of pending legislation that would end bulk data collection. Apparently they are waiting to move on the legislation until after Obama announces his decisions regarding the NSA’s programs, something he might do as early as this coming week.

Contrast these legislators with John McCain, who seems to just now be coming to the party, and who has oh-so-boldly called for a congressional investigation into the NSA’s activities. Sorry, Senator McCain, it doesn’t take a months-long-investigation to realize that the thing we most need to do to protect Americans’ privacy is end the third-party doctrine.

What’s more troubling to me are indications that any significant changes to be proposed by Obama this week will enhance the privacy not of Americans, but instead of foreigners, perhaps including terrorist suspects. In the same article in which The Guardian reports McCain’s half-hearted proposal to investigate the NSA, it also quotes the following from a speech Obama gave in December:

“In some ways, what has been more challenging is the fact that we do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans.”

“We’ve had less legal constraint in terms of what we’re doing internationally … and the values that we’ve got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders I think perhaps more systematically than we’ve done in the past.”

Pessimistic Translation: I don’t want to do anything to curtail the NSA’s spying on Americans, but how about we make terrorists’ jobs easier, now that I have an excuse to make some modifications to these programs? (Do I pretend to know that this is what Obama will announce this week? No, but I think we all have good reason to fear it.)

The good news is that, should Obama decide not to eliminate the NSA’s bulk data collection (and having the telephone companies collect the data instead does not qualify), there is a good chance that Americans won’t let him get away with it. Privacy advocacy groups have been raising public awareness of these issues, even going so far as calling for boycotts against companies they believe to be complicit in providing “backdoor” access to the NSA. One group recently started an online petition to encourage comedian Stephen Colbert to cancel a speech he plans to give for a privacy firm, RSA. RSA is believed to have taken $10 million from the NSA “to incorporate a weakened algorithm into an encryption product called BSafe that would allow the spy agency easier access to protected information.”

If Colbert decides to join others who have canceled their talks at the upcoming RSA conference (he should), and particularly if he decides to announce his reasons for doing so, it could help keep a fire lit under politicians in Washington. It would also give me another thing to like about Stephen Colbert (so far, this is all I’ve got).

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