In his final week in office, President Obama made several feel-good moves that played to his base. He transferred 10 Guantanamo detainees to Oman. He commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning. He donated his childrens swing set to a D.C. shelter.
And then there was his decision to significantly strengthen the surveillance state. On January 12, the New York Times reported that Obama had rolled back limits on the National Security Agencys most powerful surveillance operations, allowing the agency to share raw feeds of intercepted data with 16 other government agencies rather than selectively filtering it beforehand. The personal data of private citizens is now more widely and easily accessible to government eyes.
Many liberals were caught by surprise by last weeks decision. If anything, they expected Obama to cement into place remaining items on their shared agenda, like a parent picking up last-minute stocking stuffers. In November, for example, civil liberties activists called on him to declassify information on the scope of surveillance and other intelligence operations, to help hold future administrations accountable. Yet Obamas embrace of Silicon Valley and tech-savvy thinkingas best seen in the build-out of the US Digital Servicehave long been at odds with his hawkish stance on surveillance.
As Donald Trump assumes the mantle of the presidency today, he inherits a well-equipped apparatus for monitoring the private digital activities of millions of Americans. He is likely to extend these governmental powers even further. He has nominated Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Representative Mike Pompeo as director of the CIA, both of whom want to repeal a 2015 law that barred the FBI and NSA from collecting phone records. In a Wall Street Journal op ed last January, Pompeo wrote that Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database. Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.
Its hard to imagine a position more sweeping than Pompeos. Beyond potentially assembling a comprehensive database on the lives of all Americans, the expansion of the surveillance state will also likely involve more requests for FBI backdoors to sneak around encryption. We should expect few, if any, controls placed on companies ability to amass information on citizens. Well likely also see more attempts to bully corporations for access to data, as in the case of Apple refusing to unlock the San Bernardino shooters iPhone.
Obamas eleventh-hour move to expand access to the raw data feeds of American citizens sets up Trumps team to advance smoothly on these goals. But the outgoing presidents mixed record on digital liberties also reveals a path forward. Even on a topic as technical and secretive as surveillance, public opinion can play an enormous role in shaping policy. To see how, we have to flash back to exactly three years agoto January 2014.
In the early days of 2014, Obama was still reeling from the prior years biggest story: the revelations, via Edward Snowden, that the NSA had created a global system for amassing Americans data.
First, Obama defended the program. Then he went silent. Finally, he attacked Snowden. All the while, he weathered several months of searing criticism in the media. Then, on January 17, 2014, Obama delivered what was in effect a mea culpa: he announced the White House would place limits on the bulk collection, retention, and use of mass data sweeps. The reforms Im proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe, Obama said at the time.
Change was slow to come. In February 2015, The New York Times reported that many of the promised reforms remain[ed] incomplete, and that the bulk collection of information from telephone calls made to or from the country was ongoing. But in May of that year, a New York court ruled that the NSAs phone records program was illegal, placing added pressure on Washington.
In November 2015, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced that the government was officially ceasing its collection of telephone metadatathe details on what calls get made at what timesthough doubts lingered over the many loopholes that remain. Jeffrey Carr, CEO of 20K League, a firm that helps businesses handle cyber threats, isnt sold on the administrations efforts. Honestly, I dont believe theyve stopped spying on anyone, he says.
But only a few months later, Obama set in motion his plan to empower the NSA to share private communications with other US agencies. The new rules wouldnt expand the kinds or amount of data being collected, which include phone calls and emails that get routed across US borders, but they would remove restrictions on how that data is accessed. Before, national security agents had to filter information before sharing it. Now, other departments would be able to access the full feeds.
Therein lies the tradeoff: having more diverse government agents combing through raw surveillance data decreases the risk of overlooking a threat to national security, but it increases the chance that ordinary citizens will get spied upon. It took a full year for the new rules to lock into placein the form of Obamas parting gift to Trump.
President Obamas record on surveillance will forever leave a dark stain on his legacy in relation to human rights and free speech, says Evan Greer, campaign director for the digital rights group Fight for the Future.
One reason that leaders as diametrically opposed as Obama and Trump can be aligned on surveillance is simple: The majority of Americans dont care, and amassing data is an easy way to look tough on national security. Most citizens use their phones to talk to their family, says Carr. Theyre not engaged in any criminal activity, and theyre not spies. Surveillance seems either like a remote threat or a fair tradeoff for diminishing terrorism.*
Yet it may help to remember the exact civil liberty thats getting hollowed out here. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitutions Bill of Rights lays out this fundamental freedom:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The Constitutions framers were passionate about this right because they had suffered firsthand from its abuse, in the form of British troops who were free to search their homes on a whim. Such actions directly fueled the tensions that led to the American Revolution. The fact this country even exists is in part because our forebears hated having their private affairs made public without cause.
Today, the NSA doesnt have to barge into your office. The FBI doesnt have to rifle through your desk drawers. Now that the bulk of our most valuable papers and effects are online, they are vulnerable to being tracked and searched by the NSA without the agency ever securing a warrant, asking our permission, or leaving a trace. Any self-respecting person would be incensed if agents knocked down their door to search through their files, but as long as we cant see it happening, we dont seem to mind.
Yet for those who do care about preserving digital liberties, theres still hope. As Obamas January 2014 backpedaling shows, a public outcry can trigger action at the top. In the months prior to his curtailing of mass data collection, Obamas words and actions loudly suggested he would have preferred to avoid the topic entirely. Nevertheless, the Oval Office was nudged into action. Even if that action was incremental. Even if it doesnt go as far we might like. Its on usboth the media and the tech communityto remind people why mass, warrantless surveillance is a problem, and why it has to stop.
*This article was edited after publication to remove an untrustworthy source.