Obama leaves behind a mixed record on technology and surveillance

The White House’s embrace of technology as a whole is at odds with his administration’s slightly hawkish stance on surveillance.

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One en route to Pittsburgh where he will attend the “White House Frontiers Conference” in October, and where he announced new funding for technology, research, innovations such as self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
President Barack Obama boards Air Force One en route to Pittsburgh where he will attend the “White House Frontiers Conference” in October, and where he announced new funding for technology, research, innovations such as self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

President Barack Obama’s legacy will go down in U.S. history with a lot of firsts attached to it: He was the first to publicly support marriage equality, the first to pass meaningful health care reform since the Great Society, and yes, the first non-white person to hold the office.

Thanks to the rapid growth and expansion of consumer technology during Obama’s presidency, he’s also championed several digital firsts. He was the first to give interviews to web-only shows like “Between Two Ferns” and Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and the first to headline the major tech conference South by Southwest. Obama was the first U.S. president to tweet, to admit he’s addicted to his Blackberry, and — with the help of First Lady Michelle Obama and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes— the first to transform the first White House into a social media powerhouse.

On January 20, the Obama administration will leave behind a slew of tech initiatives, federal policies, and legislation that were lauded by the industry, including net neutrality, expanded internet access for low income and rural households, proposed regulations for self-driving cars, diversity in tech, and mandating police-worn body cameras to combat brutality.

But he will also bequeath a far less rosy legacy, one that his administration has failed to successfully manage: surveillance. The White House’s embrace of technology as an integral aspect of everyday life is at odds with his administration’s relatively hawkish stance on using digital data as a national security tool. Here are the biggest surveillance legacies of the Obama legislation:

NSA reform (or something like it)

Obama’s fraught relationship with the tech industry broke new ground after the 2013 NSA document leaks. While he’s been effusive about the crucial need for every American to have internet access, Obama also advocated for the consumer data that telecom companies collect be made available to spy agencies and law enforcement.


It wasn’t until details about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program—which gives spy agencies backdoor access to internet traffic—and the blanket collection of users’ metadata were exposed when Obama ordered reform. That process took two years. Following an investigation and a set of strong recommendations in 2013 to make the NSA’s intelligence gathering more compliant with civil liberties, Congress debated the merits of the PATRIOT Act clauses that gave the embattled agency its broad surveillance powers. The result was a compromise bill—far short of total reform in the eyes of privacy advocates—called the USA FREEDOM Act, which dismantled the NSA’s telephony metadata program and added some limitations on how data is collected.

Using executive orders to boost surveillance programs

As the NSA battle played out publicly, the Obama administration continued to quietly pass surveillance laws, using the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to establish opaque precedents, and executive orders to shape policy. The president has been criticized for using executive orders to circumvent congressional Republicans’ historic ineptitude, but that power, which was also heavily used by former President George W. Bush, helped Obama enact surveillance-related laws without the public knowing their details, Vocativ reported.

A study by Ohio State University’s law school found that secret laws increased under Obama. Policies enacted through the FISA court have been on the rise since September 11, but the highest number of statutory provisions related to secret surveillance laws belong to Obama starting in 2013. Through June 2015, Obama signed 30 secret orders during his presidency, 19 of which haven’t been publicly disclosed and 11 whose full details haven’t been revealed.

Tech companies fight back

The infamous Apple-FBI showdown from earlier this year, wherein the Justice Department — with Obama’s support — relied on an 18th-century law to try and strong arm the tech giant into creating a digital tool to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, was the first major skirmish between Silicon Valley and the intelligence community. The FBI ultimately accessed the phone without Apple’s help—the company remained steadfast in its refusal to create a mechanism for accessing the private data of its users—but the overlapping issues of encryption, surveillance, and cybersecurity protocol have yet to be resolved, and became a campaign issue throughout the presidential election cycle.


President-elect Trump, during Apple’s standoff with the FBI, came down forcefully on the side of the intelligence community, calling for a boycott of Apple products. Without any resolution from the Obama administration on how to handle these cases in the future, we will likely see future conflicts in the years to come.

Privacy and the cost of protecting the homeland

Obama’s presidency coincided with technology’s increasing social role and the legal and ethical quandaries it can cause. But outside of net neutrality, the Obama administration’s controversial cyber policy moves were pursued with a singular purpose: national security.

Since taking office, the Obama White House has contended with multiple high-profile international cyberattacks: the North Korean-linked Sony hack, the Office of Personnel Management breach, at least one state-sponsored Yahoo hack and, most recently, the Russian-sponsored hacks aimed to interfere with the presidential election. Add those to the rise of Islamic State-coordinated and inspired events, and surveillance through government partnerships with tech companies became an essential and powerful tool.

It remains an awkward relationship, because tech companies loudly oppose the regulation or moderation speech on their platforms, and handing over their data on users for surveillance purposes. Yet many have taken proactive roles in helping law enforcement, not wanting to be portrayed as hindering efforts to combat terrorism. Twitter, for example, banned thousands of accounts linked to the Islamic State for promoting terror-related content. Facebook has done the same.

These are the same companies that openly challenged the government’s surveillance programs and supported total NSA reform. If anything, Obama’s presidency has shown that tech policy is complicated in a world where everything is digital. Where there is warfare—be it a suicide bombing, a mass shooting, or a cyberattack—the planning and recruiting likely took place online. And in pursuit of preventing the next Orlando, Nice, or San Bernardino, every level of government has faced pressure to sacrifice individual privacy for security. The righteousness and morality of those calls vary, and remain to be seen. But it’s clear that as executive power changes hands, the incoming administration will have to find a way to balance the needs of the tech industry and the consumers it serves.