U.S. President Barack Obama may be preparing to overhaul the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program, but the reform is unlikely to impact the U.S. system of electronic surveillance.

Member of the protest group, Code Pink, Sarah Harbi, protests against U.S. President Barack Obama and the NSA. Photo: Reuters 

On the surface, the push by President Barack Obama’s administration to reform the U.S. intelligence-gathering system is of huge international significance. The disclosures by former CIA and NSA officer Edward Snowden, who was granted asylum in Russia last summer, raised many embarrassing questions for America’s political leadership. The biggest scandal of all, of course, was information that the NSA had access to confidential data about German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

All this meant that the topic of U.S. spying on allies almost reached the top of the agenda in relations between the U.S. and the European Union. Discussions about international activity by NSA were planned for the US-EU summit in March 2014. However, events in Ukraine meant that large-scale changes needed to be made to the agenda for the summit, as a result of which this issue was omitted. 

Instead, it was announced that a “dialogue over issues of U.S.-E.U. cybersecurity” would begin at the summit. The aim of this dialogue is to promote and protect the rights of the individual online, to set standards of behavior in cyberspace, and to support the cybersecurity potential of developing nations.

In affirming these intentions, Barack Obama’s administration came up with an unexpected proposal for global control of the Internet. In mid-March, the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Lawrence Strickling, announced that the U.S.A. is planning to transfer the Internet management function to an international organization.

This announcement is surprising in that for the last 15 years, attempts to transfer control of the Internet from ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, established by the U.S. Department of the Treasury) by the United Nations have met with fierce resistance on the part of the United States. The announcement stated that this step was also driven by criticism of NSA’s activities overseas by the international community.

Why NSA reforms are unlikely to change the status quo

According to U.S. law, confidential information can only be obtained by following complex legal procedures, so NSA’s operations are classified. The mere fact that information concerning these operations has been leaked is a unique and unprecedented occurrence. Which legal standards were employed in obtaining information on foreign (non-American) citizens remains unclear. America’s most powerful computer systems would theoretically allow the required data to be obtained.

According to the leaked information, America’s security organs began to have regular access to confidential information held by clients of the principal telecommunications and Internet companies even before Barack Obama came to power. These activities were provided for under President George W. Bush’s national security strategy. A continuation of this can be observed in the Obama administration’s national security policy. There is no basis to suggest that this activity will come to an end.

Firstly, using this surveillance technology is a very effective tool to counter the most recent threats to U.S. national security, such as terrorism. It is entirely possible that technology such as PRISM, MYSTIC and other systems were used during counterterrorist operations.

Secondly, the activities of the U.S. security services are afforded a huge competitive advantage in obtaining confidential data not only in relation to military opponents, but also in terms of competition in the global arena. The U.S. Government and NSA have often been accused of using this technology in obtaining commercial and economic secrets.

Thirdly, electronic surveillance technology could become the basis for a new cyber arms race, in which the United States is not prepared to lose any ground. It is important to note the informational advantage that the United States currently possesses in the field of electronic surveillance is to a great extent based on the fact that it is U.S. companies that are the dominant players in the global IT market. (In this context, it is interesting that some in Russia are actually proposing a ban on the use of products created by Apple, Microsoft and other U.S. companies as a way to limit U.S. access to confidential information held by Russian users.)

At the same time, it is obvious that these activities need to be restricted. Under pressure from a number of domestic and foreign policy factors, President Obama’s administration is taking a number of steps to limit the authority of the NSA to access confidential information held by U.S. citizens, as well as by citizens of other countries. 

Obviously, the United States is not going to relinquish such a powerful instrument of international influence. The passage of this bill will restrict NSA’s activities in terms of obtaining confidential information, while at the same time, lending it an air of legitimacy.

The announcement that a bill is to be put before Congress that will restrict NSA’s activities, which was released on the eve of President Obama’s visit to Europe, is of huge significance not only for domestic but also foreign policy. 

From this perspective, it’s possible to view the proposals by President Barack Obama’s administration as the result of a broader compromise by the U.S. government with rights activists and the international community. On a domestic policy level, it seems that this measure should boost the Democratic Party’s chances in the upcoming mid-term elections for Congress. On a foreign policy level, it means that damage can be repaired in relationships with EU countries such as Germany. For the individual Internet user, though, the benefits remain unclear.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.