UNITED STATES PRESIDENT Barack Obama has announced reforms to somewhat limit and examine US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, in order to win back trust following spying revelations made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Obama said in a speech today that he will issue presidential directives promising a number of key changes to how US intelligence agencies collect and examine data.
"Today I am announcing a series of concrete reforms," he said. "First, I have approved a new presidential directive for our intelligence activities at home and abroad. With it we will now review decisions about intelligence priorities on an annual basis."
Obama promised that the reforms will make a number of changes regarding the way agencies such as the NSA store data and receive clearance to analyse data on US citizens. "We will reform procedures to provide greater transparency about our intelligence activities," he said.
These include the creation of an independent non-governmental panel of advocates for the public interest at the secret courts that rule on national security surveillance operations. There will also be new restrictions put in place by the attorney general on how surveillance requests under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters can be made.
FISA and National Security Letters are used by the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to force many companies, including Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft, to hand over vast amounts of customer data. The nature of the requests means that the companies are not allowed to disclose what information was handed over without risking criminal charges.
Obama promised that the reforms will improve the transparency of these practices, but failed to disclose how.
"While investigating threats the FBI relies on National Security Letters that require companies to hand over information to the government. We must be more transparent about this," he said.
"I've ordered the attorney general to amend how we use National Security Letters so this secrecy will not be permanent and will end in time. We will also allow information providers to give more information than ever before about what data they've handed to the government."
Obama said the FISA reforms are an essential step in the government's effort to win back international trust following the exposure of its surveillance activities.
"The new presidential directive will clearly prescribe what we do and do not do when it comes to our overseas activities. US intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific needs," he said.
"We will also develop safeguards and create a time limit on how long we can store personal information. People around the world should know the US is not spying on them."
Obama also said that, despite the reforms he proposes to direct, NSA surveillance is necessary to protect national security and at no point did the NSA overstep its bounds. "As president, a president who looks at intelligence every morning I can tell you we need to protect against threats. 9/11 is proof of this," he said.
"The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA constantly follow protocols. They're not using their powers to listen to you calls or read your private emails. These people are our friends, our family members, our neighbours."
The US president accused several nations of hypocrisy, arguing that they are only upset because US operations are more sophisticated and effective than their own, promising that the nation will continue to pursue and develop its cyber operations.
"Many countries, including those that feigned surprise following the Snowden revelations, are trying to penetrate our networks," he said. "Our agencies will continue to gather intelligence on foreign governments' intentions. We will not apologise for doing it better."
The NSA surveillance scandal broke in 2013, when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents to the press detailing the NSA's spying operations. The leaks have continued in a steady stream of revelations. Most recently the NSA was shown to have collected and examined 200 million SMS messages per day in 2011. µ