WASHINGTON — David Medine, head of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, defended the panel’s decision to make its first order of business a review of “glamorous” and timely privacy issues, specifically the National Security Agency’s telephone data collection and surveillance programs.
Medine made the comment in answer to a question from an audience member at a talk Wednesday before the American Bar Association.
Just weeks after Medine became chairman of the bipartisan privacy board, senators asked it to review the NSA’s phone data program. The board took on the task in part because important privacy and civil liberties issues were in question and in part because the controversy was in the headlines, Medine said.
The privacy panel, in a report, concluded the NSA should stop bulk collection of telephone records because the program is potentially unconstitutional, and has only “limited” value.
Medine said the scope of the program and its potential for abuse had a “chilling effect on free speech and organization.”
“People are less comfortable contacting journalists. Clients may be less comfortable contacting lawyers,” he said.
The board’s report also recommended the NSA destroy the records it has already collected. The report said the NSA should still be allowed to work with law enforcement to obtain phone records from private phone companies, but that private firms should not be required to collect and store phone records.
The data collection program, which was revealed as part of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA documents to journalists at The Guardian and Washington Post, gathers and stores the metadata from phone calls, which include information about who was on the call, when the call was placed and how long it lasted.
In his speech on NSA surveillance last month, President Barack Obama said the metadata from phone calls should no longer be stored by the NSA but should instead be held by a “third party.” His administration is expected to give more details on how to implement such a policy in the next few months.
The privacy board also reviewed the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as the FISA Court, and said it should be able to hear from lawyers not affiliated with the government. Currently, FISA Court proceedings are closed to the public and the judges hear from only government lawyers.
The board is currently working on a review of the PRISM program, another NSA surveillance operation that has made headlines recently. The program grants the NSA access to private information from users on sites like Facebook, Google and Skype. PRISM has raised concerns in the U.S. although the program is only supposed to be used to spy on people outside the U.S. who are not U.S. citizens.
In the future, Medine said the board will probably move on to less “glamorous” issues, such as drone policy and National Counterterrorism Center operations.