Edward Snowden long ago claimed that his mission was a huge success. It’s unlikely that even President Barack Obama would dispute his claim. Almost a year after the startling revelations by the NSA whistle-blower and the release of classified documents by him to several media outlets, the US is continuing to feel the pain of those disclosures. And this pain is likely to continue until the Obama administration treats itself by launching serious reforms to curb the metadata collection by the spying agency.
For any pain, the treatment is unavoidable and must be prompt. It seems Washington has woken up to the urgency and is aware of the huge consequences any delay would trigger. Snowden’s revelations have hit US technology firms hard – in fact more lethally than they had expected. They are losing business worth billions of dollars as foreign companies are losing faith in them due to fear of leakage of their vital data and are transferring business outside the US.
In keeping with the pubic and business mood, President Obama and Congress are said to be moving closer to a consensus on how to respond to the Snowden disclosures. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the data collection system, in a way that will restore public and business confidence. Superficial measures will not help to repair the damage that has been caused, the reason being that the damage is very huge.
The president has proposed that bulk telephone metadata remain with the phone companies. To get access in all but emergencies, the government would need an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and queries would be limited to two hops from the original search, to prevent unbridled fishing expeditions. It’s indeed a good idea, and can help dispel doubts. But will foreign governments and companies be satisfied with this action? It’s highly unlikely. The government can still devise secret measures to access the data and it would take another Snowden to disclose them.
The latest disclosures on NSA snooping show that not all of its actions were legally sanctioned. According to reports, the US intelligence chiefs have confirmed that the NSA has used a ‘back door’ in surveillance law to perform warrantless searches on Americans’ communications. The NSA’s collection programs are ostensibly targeted at foreigners, but in August Britian’s The Guardian revealed a secret rule change allowing NSA analysts to search for Americans’ details within the databases.
Spying is an integral part of every country’s existence and Washington too will not take any action that will curtail its spying activity. That will be the challenge for Obama – how to continue the spying and at the same time initiate measures that will repair the damage.