After months of negotiations the Obama administration has reached an agreement with several technology companies that would allow these companies to release more information about the number of government surveillance requests for their customer data.
The agreement announced Monday was enough to convince companies like Microsoft and Google to drop the lawsuit they filed last summer, but others say it "falls far short of the level of transparency" that Internet companies, privacy advocates and civil liberties organizations called for last summer, Kevin Bankstone, policy director of New America's Open Technology Institute, told Time magazine.
Either way the agreement may be moot because on the same day it was announced the Associate Press reported that the government is looking at ways to prevent anyone from spying on its own surveillance of Americans' phone records.
As the Obama administration considers shifting the collection of those records from the National Security Agency to requiring that they be stored at phone companies or elsewhere, it's quietly funding research to prevent phone company employees or eavesdroppers from seeing whom the U.S. is spying on.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has paid at least five research teams across the country to develop a system for high-volume, encrypted searches of electronic records kept outside the government's possession, the AP reports. The project is among several ideas that would allow the government to discontinue storing Americans' phone records, but still search them as needed.
Published reports said new documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggest that popular mapping, gaming and social networking apps on smartphones can feed the NSA with personal data, including location information and details such as political affiliation or sexual orientation.
Under pressure, the administration has provided only vague descriptions about changes it is considering to the NSA's daily collection and storage of Americans' phone records, which are presently kept in NSA databanks. To resolve legal, privacy and civil liberties concerns, President Barack Obama this month ordered the attorney general and senior intelligence officials to recommend changes by March 28 that would allow the U.S. to identify terrorists' phone calls without the government holding the phone records itself.
One federal review panel urged Obama to order phone companies or an unspecified third party to store the records; another panel said collecting the phone records was illegal and ineffective and urged Obama to abandon the program entirely.
An encrypted search system would permit the NSA to shift storage of phone records to either phone providers or a third party, and conduct secure searches remotely through their databases. The coding could shield both the extracted metadata and identifies of those conducting the searches. This could make it more difficult for hackers to access the phone records and could prevent phone companies from knowing which records the government was searching.
The government could use encrypted searches to ensure its analysts were not leaking information or abusing anyone's privacy during their data searches. And the technique could also be used by the NSA to securely search out and retrieve Internet metadata, such as e-mails and other electronic records.
However, some computer science experts are less sanguine about the prospects for encrypted search techniques, the AP reports.
"There's no silver bullet that guarantees the intelligence community will only have access to the records they're supposed to have access to," said Daniel Weitnzer, principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and former deputy U.S. chief technology officer for the Obama administration. "We also need oversight of the actual use of the data."
Ultimately it will be up to Congress to step in and institute reforms that require the government to publish basic information about the full extent of its surveillance, including the significant amount of spying that happens without the technology companies' involvement.