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Summary:

President Obama finally spoke up in detail about the controversial surveillance practices exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The speech was also significant for what he didn’t say.

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President Obama finally addressed the steady drumbeat of concerns over America’s surveillance practices, saying on Friday that he will curtail the use of telephone metadata and will reform legal procedures related to the government’s data collection and spying practices.

In a Washington press briefing, Obama said the NSA will immediately be required to limit its queries of a massive phone database to two hops not three, and that the agency must obtain a court order to query the database in the first place. He also tasked officials with finding a way to store the database, which contains a record of every phone call in the last years, outside of government hands. The phone records are also being challenged before federal judges, one of whom called for the records to be destroyed.

Obama’s speech also addressed numerous other privacy-related that have come to light due to a series of dramatic leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.  The President only mentioned Snowden’s name twice in the course of the speech, saying “I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations.” Nor did he address the New York Times’ call for an amnesty for Snowden who fled to Russia last year.

In the speech, Obama also pledged more transparency and a time limit related to so-called “national security letters,” which place companies like Google under a gag order while forcing them to disclose information about their subscribers. The tech industry has been fighting the government in a secret spy court for the right to report on how many such letters they receive. In another significant development, the President said that he would require outside parties to act as advocates against the government in the secret court proceedings.

Obama did not address the NSA’s compromising of global encryption standards, a practice that has sparked enormous outrage from security experts and other countries. He did, however, propose to reach out to the technology industry as part of a broad review of privacy and big data practices.

You can learn details from a new White House policy document, an EFF scorecard and from news reports, including this helpful explainer. The reaction to the speech on Twitter was, unsurprisingly, not entirely enthusiastic. Here are some choice tweets:

  1. The Fourth Amendment (Amendment IV) to the United States Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. It was adopted in response to the abuse of the writ of assistance, a type of general search warrant issued by the British government and a major source of tension in pre-Revolutionary America. The Fourth Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1789 by James Madison, along with the other amendments in the Bill of Rights, in response to Anti-Federalist objections to the new Constitution. Congress submitted the amendment to the states on September 28, 1789. By December 15, 1791, the necessary three-quarters of the states had ratified it. On March 1, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the adoption of the amendment.

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