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Opinion: Obama's missed moment

By mandating a bold overhaul of NSA mass surveillance practices President Obama could have won back some lost trust. Instead, he opted for as little change as possible, says DW's Michael Knigge.

The NSA's massive intelligence gathering apparatus remains largely untouched and in place. That was the gist of US President Barack Obama's remarks at the Department of Justice on Friday (17.01.2014)

To be sure, Obama announced a few helpful measures to increase judicial oversight and restrict access to certain data sets. For instance, it is a small step in the right direction that the phone data of Americans will have to be stored by a yet to be determined third party and not the NSA in the future. That's what Obama's own intelligence panel had recommended and the way it has been handled in Europe for some time. And it is also good news that a so called panel of advocates is supposed to represent the public's civil liberty and privacy concerns before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court where until now only the government had presented its case.

Core problem remains

But the president's remarks did not address the heart of the matter. Obama does not intend to curb or cut any of the NSA's myriad of mass surveillance collection programs that sweep up much of the world's Internet and phone traffic. That means every Internet or phone user is still presumed guilty by default. Instead of mandating filters that would limit and better target the amount of personal information sucked up by the NSA's global data vacuum cleaner, Obama merely announced that the agency needs to get judicial approval for accessing small segments of the giant data pool that involve US persons. Other than that, he mostly ordered reviews of other NSA practices.

While the minor changes announced by Obama were meant to at least try to assuage Americans worried about government snooping, he did at best make a half-hearted effort to address international concerns about US mass surveillance. Obama's message to everyone outside the US was essentially what his intelligence services have been saying all along - just trust us that we will use your data responsibly. The only concrete assurance Obama gave was that foreign allied leaders will not be placed under surveillance any longer unless there are compelling national security reasons. Given all that has been revealed by the Snowden disclosures and the damage done specifically to the transatlantic relationship, that is not a good sign for Washington's international allies.

National security trumps privacy

Obama, a former constitutional law professor and NSA critic, apparently has made his choice. By leaving the agency's mass surveillance gathering systems that sweep up as much of our collective digital lives as they can essentially unchanged, he has clearly sided with the intelligence apparatus over citizens' privacy concerns. The sad thing is that he hasn't even tried to balance the two.

Michael Knigge reports on transatlantic affairs for Deutsche Welle.

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