Unlike our incompetent yet manipulative politicians in the UK, the US President Barack Obama is having to try to justify the huge national Security Ageceny bulk data grabbing and snooping systems, the scale of which have been revealed via the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
c.f. this Washington Post transcript of President Barack Obama's January 17th speech.
Metadata trawling: 2 hops or 3 ?
The only significant item which seem, on the face of it, to be a concession to the furious criticism is:
Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of the current three
However, as others have pointed this is less of a concession that it initially seems. NSA already routinely uses "2 hops" i.e. snoops on the mobile phone or email metadata of not just the person on the (huge) target list, but also on everyone they communicate with (1 hop) and everyone those people communicate with (2 hops).
The 3rd hop has always required another level of authorisation, more because of the exponentially greater resources needed for storage and transdlation and analysis work this generates rather than any concern over the privacy of the innocent majority of people pulled in by a 3 hop dragnet.
However also note the restriction to "associated with a terrorist organization"
This cosmetic policy change would have no effect on the mapping out of the phone contacts of world leaders like Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, or Brasilian, Mexican or Indonesian Presidents'. Neither does this affect economic espionage e.g. the mapping out of the metadata contacts of the Brasilian state oil company Petrobras (which was subcontracted out to the Candians anyway)
One other slightly odd feature was the way in which Obama's speechwriters foolishly invoked Paul Revere and the American Revolution:
At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee, born out of the Sons of Liberty, was established in Boston. And the group's members included Paul Revere. At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America's early patriots.
It would have been more relevant, even to the point they were trying to make, to remind people that the Continentall Congress, set up CIA like foreign espionage (the Committee on Secret Correspondence) and FBI like counter-intelligence (the Committee (later called a Commission) for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies) committees.
They also intercepted the (up till then sacrosanct) postal mail system, which should be the historical analogy with NSA.
However, entirely predicably, intercepting mail was and still is, open to abuses.
The Continental Congress regularly received quantities of intercepted British and Tory mail. On November 20, 1775, it received some intercepted letters from Cork, Ireland, and appointed a committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Johnson, Robert Livingston, Edward Rutledge, James Wilson and George Wythe "to select such parts of them as may be proper to publish." The Congress later ordered a thousand copies of the portions selected by the Committee to be printed and distributed. A month later, when another batch of intercepted mail was received, a second committee was appointed to examine it. On the basis of its report, the Congress resolved that "the contents of the intercepted letters this day read, and the steps which Congress may taken in consequence of said intelligence thereby given, be kept secret until further orders..." By early 1776, abuses were noted in the practice, and Congress resolved that only the councils or committees of safety of each colony, and their designees, could henceforth open the mail or detain any letters from the post.
Google Books has digitised the relevant Congressional records:
pg 137 -128
Tuesday April 16th 1776
Whereas much inconvenience may be derived to the public from committees, others than the committee of safety in each colony, on the public post roads, stopping and opening the mails, and detaining letters from the constitutional post;
Resolved, That no committee, but the council or committee of safety in each colony, or such persons as they shall on extrordinary occaisions authorise, shall stop the constitutional post, open the mail, or detain any letters therefrom.
Obama's ploy of citing the American revolution to try to justify the abuses by the NSA and their political masters (Obama himself included) seems to be a bit of an own goal.
Pathetic though the "reforms" in this speech are, the Obama administration has announced much more of a reform process than the UK Coalition government has about the NSA's partner in crime GCHQ.