The surveillance conundrum

IN ADDITION to issues like G8, Crimea and Syria, Barack Obama now has to unveil a plan of action that will have to show up the US in a better light where civil liberties are concerned.

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Published: Wed 26 Mar 2014, 11:25 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 9:35 PM

The United States president is under a lot of pressure to make sure that the policy he announces this week meets the expectations of not only civil liberty-conscious people at home but also addresses the concerns of the international community.

The eavesdropping operations and the leaks that came from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden last year put the entire intelligence gathering and communication network in the spotlight with people worldwide questioning the rationale behind encroaching the private space of individuals. Now, if reports coming out of the White House are to be believed, Obama is likely to order an overhaul of the electronic surveillance programme. However, this will mean imposing new curbs, not only on government agencies but also on telecommunication agencies. The NSA could be out of business if the president goes on to scrap its unlimited reach and data storage capacity. The proposal would end the government’s practice of acquiring the phone records of citizens and holding onto them for five years so that they could be searched if national security demanded it. Instead, now the White House is expected to propose that the records be kept for 18 months, as required by the law under federal regulations for the phone companies. A host of proposals such as to boost the counterterrorism programme by beefing up intelligence gathering are under debate.

How Obama manages to make his way through this slippery territory will redefine his posture as a torchbearer of the freedom of speech and one who believes in a non-interventionist government. An independent review panel has proposed that the practice of the state agencies collecting phone records be replaced by a third party or the phone companies themselves holding the records, and the government could access them as needed. But that is unlikely to materialise as there are lots of legal, personal and civil society-related complications. The issue has gathered enough political weightage as two former US presidents have come up with their contradictory theories on what espionage should be like in the changing world. Bill Clinton believes that Internet freedom could suffer after the US steps back from its role as ultimate overseer of the global network. This means more hands-on espionage. But Jimmy Carter, the human rights defender, says he has taken to writing letters with his pen as modern surveillance is infringing on the basic civil rights of Americans. Obama has to do some tightrope walking to come up with a rejoinder of his own.

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