Obama Changes Rules for NSA Data Collection

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Senior Entrepreneurship Writer at CNBC
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In a speech delivered at the Department of Justice in Washington today, President Obama announced a change to the way your personal cell phone metadata is stored by the U.S. government. 

In the past year, revelations about the National Security Agency's policy of gathering and saving vast quantities of personal cell phone data have been a subject of national outrage. The angst over personal security was catalyzed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's disclosure of U.S. government surveillance policies. 

While Obama said back in June that he "welcomed" debate about the policies, he certainly didn't start the conversation unprovoked. That's because it's messy, complicated and both civil liberty advocates and national security advocates are very passionate. For example, one civil liberties group, Demand Progress, has called for the end of the government collection of metadata completely. 

Related: Marissa Mayer, Tim Cook & Other Tech Titans Meet With Obama on Health Care, Surveillance

While Obama said Friday that the current practice of collecting bulk cell phone metadata will continue, he did say that an independent third party will hold the data, not the government itself. Also, the U.S. government will only be able to pull phone records from that third party storage facility that are two steps removed from a terrorist organization. Previously, phone records have been able to be pulled if they are suspected to be as far as three steps removed from a terrorist organization, according to a fact sheet released by the White House. 

In his speech, Obama laid out out the importance of secret surveillance action in protecting civilians from foreign military threat. He started by ticking off the U.S.'s long history of using military intelligence to defend the country, referencing Paul Revere and 'The Sons of Liberty' in the Revolutionary War to code-breaking during World War II that allowed the American military to intercept Japanese war plans. 

But the President also acknowledged the importance of protecting the civil liberties of individuals, particularly in an increasingly digitally-connected world where hackers have more opportunities than ever. "There is a reason why BlackBerrys and i-Phones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room," he said. 

Related: Uh, Did Your Refrigerator Just Send Me an Internet Virus?

In addition to announcing changes to data collection, Obama revealed several other national security strategy changes today in a presidential policy directive. For example, once a year, a panel of advocates with a broad spectrum of policy agendas will sit down and review current surveillance policies. Also, the policy directive clarifies what communications between U.S. and foreign nations will be examined by national securities officials. And the State Department will include a new position specifically designated to developing diplomatic policy surrounding technology and privacy.

Obama said that because of the pace of technological developments, the discussion of how best to protect individual privacy while also protecting U.S. civilians from foreign terrorist threats will need to happen regularly in the future. "When you cut through the noise, what's really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed," said Obama today. "One thing I'm certain of: This debate will make us stronger."  

Related: Your Password Is 123456? Wow. Seriously?

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