Reviewing the Review Group: Practice What You Preach

The “President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” has issued their report. Convened in late summer to advise the president on what to do in the wake of the Snowden revelations (without mentioning Snowden), the group was rightly criticized for its ‘insider’ composition. The report has beaten the privacy community’s low expectations, which is good news. It advances a discussion that began in June and that will continue for years.

Some observations:

- Contrary to expectations, the report is outside the White House’s “comfort zone.” That’s good, because, as noted, this group could easily have decided to ratify the status quo, handing the administration and the National Security Agency a minor victory. The report positioned Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to say: “The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far.”

- There is no reason to treat the report as a reform “bible.” This was a problem with the 9/11 Commission report, for example, which was held up as sacrosanct even when it was wrong. The Review Group report is right about some things, such as eliminating administratively issued National Security Letters, it is wrong about some things, and it omits some key issues, such as the government-wide penchant for secrecy that created the current problems.

- Weaknesses are more interesting than strengths, and a particular weakness of the report is its call for retaining the phone calling surveillance program. Recommendation Five calls for legislation that “terminates the storage of bulk telephony meta-data by the government under [USA-PATRIOT Act] section 215, and transitions as soon as reasonably possible to a system in which such meta-data is held instead either by private providers or by a private third party.” The debate over data retention mandates ended some years ago, and the government was denied this power. The NSA’s illegal excesses should not be rewarded by giving it authorities that public policy previously denied it. Outsourcing dragnet surveillance does not cure its constitutional and other ills.

- The data retention recommendation is in conflict with another part of the report, which calls for risk management and cost-benefit analysis. “The central task,” the report says, “is one of risk management.” So let’s discuss that: Gathering data about every phone call made in the United States and retaining it for years produces only tiny slivers of security benefit, the NSA’s unsupported claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Considering dollar costs alone, it almost certainly fails a cost-benefit test. If you include the privacy costs, the failure of this program to manage security risks effectively is more clear. The Review Group’s conclusion about communications surveillance is inconsistent with its welcome promotion of risk management.

Most legal scholars and most civil liberties and privacy advocates punt on security questions, conceding the existence of a significant threats, however undefined and amorphous. They disable themselves from arguing persuasively about what is “reasonable” for Fourth Amendment purposes. Concessions like these also prevent one from conducting valid risk management and cost-benefit analysis. Some of us here at Cato don’t shy from examining the security issues, and we do pretty darn good risk management. The Review Group should practice what it preaches if it’s going to preach what we practice!