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White House to mandate deletion of irrelevant private data collected by surveillance agencies

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The White House / Flickr

The White House is expected to place new limits on government surveillance today with a set of rules that will offer some additional protections around privacy and transparency, according to The New York Times. The biggest change is reported to be a requirement that intelligence agencies delete any private information from US citizens, such as an email or phone conversation, that has been collected incidentally and is not relevant to national security. Such information from foreigners must be deleted within five years.

National Security Letters can actually be talked about... eventually

The new rules are also reported to address National Security Letters, which allow the FBI to secretly compel companies to hand over information such as subscriber details, billing records, and other data in the name of security. Though it comes far from the overhaul that opponents of NSLs are hoping for, the Times reports that the FBI will be required to end the mandated secrecy around NSLs after three years or at the conclusion of an investigation, whichever comes earlier. Exceptions can reportedly be made if a "midlevel" officer at the agency provides written justification for the period of secrecy to continue.

Mandated secrecy has been a huge issue surrounding NSLs, as it's all but prevented recipients from even acknowledging their existence. These new rules seem to do nothing to curb the fact that these powerful letters can be written entirely without judicial oversight, but President Obama has already said that he's only interested in reducing their secrecy.

The White House will also begin to regularly review the National Security Agency's monitoring of foreign leaders, according to the Times. It's not stated how often this review will occur, but presumably the intention here is to avoid embarrassing incidents, such as when the United States' surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel became public. Naturally, which world leaders the White House decides to keep on and off the surveillance list will remain secret.

Notably, the Times points out that these rules will do nothing to address the government's continued bulk collection of telephone metadata. Obama has said that he wants to continue the program but get the data out of the government's hands, leaving it with a private party where the government would have to receive a court order to ask for records. Exactly which private parties will hold the data and how they will keep it secure reportedly still remains a hold-up. The Times reports that private companies haven't been eager to hold onto the data voluntarily, and the government may need to have Congress mandate this storage to get phone companies on board.

These are light changes overall, and they don't stray much from the limitations on surveillance that Obama announced his intention to implement last January. That means that, while these make progress on surveillance reform, they're still far from what privacy advocates have been petitioning for. Protections around US citizens' data and transparency around NSLs will help, but in both cases, the government still retains most of its ability to initially collect data. Full details on the new rules are expected to be released later today.