Home > C13, Digital Policy, NSA, Politics, Privacy, User Rights > The Plan of Obama’s Meta Data Collection Punt Needs Consideration

The Plan of Obama’s Meta Data Collection Punt Needs Consideration

Obama’s full NSA speech:


Obama has made some very small changes, but may end up being significant meaningful ones as the politics of this plays out. When I’m looking at Government policy, I try and read in between the lines a bit to try and forecast the overall effects policy may have.  In order to do that, you have to also take into account the political environment as well as law.  I’ve been pretty outspoken on privacy issues on this blog.  After Obama’s speech, there was a firestorm of criticism of the US president on not doing enough to curb NSA spying.  Right now I can not take a position for or against that argument due to looking at the politics of the situation.  I think Obama’s speech was very calculated, in a way that circumvents a deadlocked and commercially owned congress, and pushes liability on user privacy to the private sector in an unprecedented way that will have huge impacts on the business models surrounding big data.

This may have been Obama’s only political move here from following US politics.  Will it be enough to satisfy allies, and private industry that their private information is safe?  Probably not, because trust has been broken.  Trust needs to be earned back.  Some were expecting that trust to be thrusted back in the form of sweeping reforms.  Even if Obama came out swinging, there is still the issue of a deadlocked congress on this matter, and a very skeptical global population.  A quick fix to this issue, may not be the fix needed to earn trust back, and put forth meaningful and sustained changes on how our private digital information is used by the US Government, and the private sector abroad.  This post will focus on the changes Obama made to the phone meta data collection program, as it relates to digital policy and effects thereof.

Obama in his speech has punted the issue of private data collection to the telecom providers, thereby shifting the collection and storage of data to the private sector and out of Governments hands.  By punting the collection of mass data to the telecos opens the door for litigation on those telecos.  This is in stark contrast to the Canadian Governments position on giving Canadian telecom immunity over privacy issues through bill C-13 (I will touch up on that in future post).  This means the US courts will determine the course of mass collection in the US.  A case that would appear before the US Supreme Court against the government would only curb governments use of this information, not private industry I would suspect.

Many of you are probably saying right now, “yeah but private industry won’t do anything, or it will fight for the collection and use of this data”.  In some cases that is true, but with the US telecommunications sector, before Obama gave his speech, released a statement that they are ready to war with the administration on this due to privacy concerns, and threats of litigation.  After Obama’s speech, there’s a very good chance these telecom providers, as a result of being angry in having to do this, will fight to reduce the amount of information collected, and the time for how long it is being kept.   A large reason why Obama is playing things this way, is because congress is deadlocked on the issue, and no matter what he says or does regarding the NSA, it will have to be approved by congress, with the exception of getting the Government out of the mass collection of data.  This also kills two birds with one stone, as it’s clear that Obama also has the use of big data by private industry in his sights as well.  By punting this to the private sector, it will determine how everyone collects online data, not just the US government.

Moving the collection of data to the telecom providers also saves substantial tax payers dollars in implementation and legal costs; it would also be hard to argue against politically in this climate due to international and domestic pressures the US is facing right now.  This I would strongly suspect is how the phone meta data, in fact all data collected by private companies will be changed.  In my opinion from following US politics closely on this issue, it’s a very interesting and calculated political move.  This political move essentially removes the politics of the situation and ensures a resolution to data collection as it relates to constitutional rights, far beyond government collection, or politically; changes congress or any future president can make and will be solidified within case law.

There has been a huge firestorm of criticism on Obama’s speech regarding the meta data collection.  Understand that he also has to play around the politics of this if the goal is to develop meaningful changes.  The US is a democracy (some will dispute that), and in order to see meaningful changes the politics of this has to be played correctly by the president.  There is a chance that the uproar regarding phone meta data collection will be dealt with in congress, however congress is pretty much owned by private industry and anything coming out of them due to big money on big data will most likely be severely watered down.  Solidifying case law in data collection against the US constitution through litigation, will over rule any insignificant and watered down changes congress comes up with.  If I’m right on all of this, this political move by Obama on meta data may in fact have been his only logical choice to bring in meaningful long term changes to overall data collection if the plan plays out as expected.

Obama has also called the international community to set up an international agreement on privacy issues.  This is in stark contrast to the USTR’s approach to policy in trade agreements we’ve seen in ACTA, TPP and so forth.  This could mean a significant change in direction of US foreign policy  if an international agreement on privacy can be established.  Overall from what I’ve seen, this looks to be Obama’s plan.  Whether or not it materializes the way it’s looks to be set up, is something that I think maybe up for debate, and the reason why I reserve my comments on the effectiveness of this plan for another time.  But from looking at this from a logical and political angle, I think Obama did only what he could do to try and earn back the trust of Americans.  Whether it’s enough politically won’t be determined by US Citizens or courts, but by international pressure.  The one thing that he didn’t take into account from the looks of it, were issues outside of the US and growing international dissent which will grow with time, in which I will agree his speech and politics didn’t speak very well too.  Essentially Obama wants time to deal with this internally, time he may not have due to international, and economic pressures.  Only time will tell how successful this approach can be, but it is a step forward from my perspective.  Next week I’ll focus a bit more on the effects Obama’s speech may have on Canadian policy and law.  Stay tuned.

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