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Human Rights Watch says Obama not gone far enough on NSA reforms

Pro-democracy lawamaker Gary Fan holds a combination photo featuring U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), during a news conference in Hong Kong, in support of Snowden, June 14, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip
Pro-democracy lawamaker Gary Fan holds a combination photo featuring U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), during a news conference in Hong Kong, in support of Snowden, June 14, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

By Michelle Martin

BERLIN (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama has not gone far enough in reforming the monitoring activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) and is continuing to violate the privacy rights of individuals, the head of Human Rights Watch told Reuters.

On Friday, Obama banned eavesdropping on the leaders of allies and began reining in the vast collection of U.S. citizens' phone data, seeking to reassure Americans and foreigners that the United States would take into account privacy concerns highlighted by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations.

But Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based group, told Reuters in Berlin that Obama had provided little more than "vague assurance" on the monitoring of communications.

"In none of this has there been a recognition that non-Americans outside the United States have a right to the privacy of their communications, that everybody has a right to the privacy of their metadata and that everybody has a right not to have their electronic communications scooped up into a government computer," he said.

Roth said the U.S. needed to stop gathering communications en masse, saying there was no proof that such vast surveillance had made a difference to security.

He likened the U.S. approach to putting a video camera in people's bedrooms and saying this did not violate privacy rights because the footage would only be looked at in the event of a security risk.

"That's the current U.S. approach which makes no sense whatsoever," he said.

Obama said last week that collecting telephone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act - passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. - involved gathering phone numbers, times and durations of calls and said this metadata "can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization".

In its annual global report, HRW said there was a risk that governments would respond to the U.S. government's "overreaching" by preventing their citizens' data from leaving their home country, a move that could lead to more censorship of the Internet.

"In the end, there will be no safe haven if privacy is seen as a strictly domestic issue, subject to many carve-outs and lax or non-existent oversight," said Dinah PoKempner, General Counsel at HRW.

(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Alexander Ratz; Editing by Noah Barkin)

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