Data Collection By The NSA To See Changes, But How Much?
January 18, 2014

Obama Speaks On National Security Agency, Promises Transition

Enid Burns for - Your Universe Online

President Barack Obama addressed the nation Friday to discuss changes to the surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) programs. While he plans to make changes, the plans the president outlined are broad.

A transcript of the speech was posted online by the Washington Post. A key takeaway from the speech was posted by Brian Fung on his Washington Post blog.

"I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata," President Obama said in his speech.

A quick analysis by Fung explains that the speech and the particular point above both leave a wide swath for surveillance efforts to continue.

"It's worth pointing out that Obama's big caveat -- 'as it currently exists; -- gives him wide latitude on the issue. There are also going to be some big questions as to how he'll pull off the second clause," Feng wrote.

Obama referenced surveillance efforts and their effectiveness since the beginnings of the American nation. He even noted that the Cold War led to the formation of the National Security Agency by President Truman. "Throughout this evolution, we benefited from both our Constitution and our traditions of limited government. U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances, with oversight from elected leaders and protections for ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, totalitarian states like East Germany offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes," Obama said in his speech.

The National Security Agency has evolved over the years from spying on foreign nationals to spying on US citizens in an effort to keep the country safe. Recent efforts have included spying on cell phone activities including calls and text messages, communications and web browsing on computers - which has included the installation of spyware, and efforts to break encryption.

Much of the NSA's activities went unnoticed, until contractor Edward Snowden began to leak documents that detailed the activities of the US government agency. Exploits of the NSA have trickled out over the past several months, from details of documents released by Snowden. The most recent details have been that the NSA harvested as many as 200 million text messages a day at one point, The Telegraph reports. An investigation conducted by the Guardian and the UK's Channel 4 News has brought out more details of the NSA's surveillance of text messages, The Guardian reports. Data were used by the NSA, and also shared with the UK spy agency GCHQ. The NSA hosted a conference in June of 2011 titled: Content Extraction Enhancements for Target Analytics: SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit. The conference highlighted the need to create metadata stores and analytics to better delve into text messages and gain value.

The Guardian and Channel 4 News investigation identified several key points, including that the NSA was able to extract volumes from its monitoring of text messages. In its efforts, more than 5 million missed-call alerts were registered, and used in contact-chaining analysis. The NSA recorded details of 1.6 million border crossings a day based on network roaming alerts. More than 110,000 names were obtained from electronic business cards. More than 800,000 financial transactions were noted, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users.

"The agency was also able to extract geolocation data from more than 76,000 text messages a day, including from 'requests by people for route info' and 'setting up meetings.' Other travel information was obtained from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including cancellations and delays to travel plans," the Guardian article said.

The surreptitious efforts of the NSA occurred during Obama's presidency. While on the campaign trail the then hopeful presidential candidate campaigned against such activities. In August 2007 Barack Obama gave a speech on terrorism in front of a center for scholars, the New York Times reports. "That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime," the president said in his 2007 address.

In the years since, President Barack Obama has turned to surveillance measures that he once spoke out against. Obama has suggested that the NSA's efforts went far deeper than he had knowledge of. His address on Friday was an effort to change the NSA's activities, and find a way to continue to collect and analyze some of the data obtained by the agency.