The key development on President Barack Obama's promise was the passage of the USA Freedom Act on June 2, 2015. After signing two reauthorizations of the Patriot Act that left most its central features intact, Obama signed major revisions into law that affected the bulk collection of telephone metadata and the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
One of the most telling revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was that the government had been stockpiling raw data on the timing, location and numbers of ordinary phone calls. By the government's reading, this was allowed under section 215 of the Patriot Act.
The USA Freedom Act ended that practice as of Nov. 29, 2015. If the National Security Agency wants that kind of information, it would make its case before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, listing the specific numbers it wanted to include in its search and why. With that approval, the NSA would submit its query to the private telecommunications companies who would sift through their data. In an emergency, the NSA can seek approval from three top-ranking officials at the Justice Department -- the attorney general, the deputy attorney general or the assistant attorney general for national security.
So, before the change, the NSA simply collected all the metadata it could handle. After the change, only the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or, in an emergency, three top Justice Department officials can authorize the collection of targeted metadata.
The new law contains other features. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can bring in an outsider to serve as a public advocate when new sorts of intelligence issues crop up, plus there are some additional opportunities to appeal decisions by the court. On the transparency front, the court must issue a public report when it decides on new technical or legal matters. And if companies or organizations are subpoenaed to produce information, they can, under certain circumstances, speak publicly about it.
All of this qualifies as providing more oversight on government surveillance, but privacy experts and advocates caution against assuming that everything is fine and dandy.
Neema Guliani at the American Civil Liberties Union characterizes the oversight as "better than the dismal status quo," but hardly ironclad.
"There's a question whether the government is giving the judges all the information they need to make a decision," Guliani told us. "And it seems unclear what the government sees as its notification responsibilities. If you don't provide notice and information, it become difficult to determine if the judges are performing their oversight function."
Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote that metadata might not be as protected as people think.
"There are many other ways in which the government could be sweeping in the same records," Kadidal wrote. "In part, that is because metadata isn't protected by the warrant requirement the same way the content of your phone calls is."
Kadidal said the government might be able to get what it wants through a more easily obtained subpoena.
To be sure, the advocates say the new law is better than the Patriot Act, but they see loopholes.
There's one other criticism. Elizabeth Goitein at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York gives Obama little credit for carrying these changes forward.
"He signed two straight reauthorizations of the Patriot Act into law, and only got behind reform legislation, the USA Freedom Act, after it became inevitable post-Snowden," Goitein said.
She also noted that Obama signed the reauthorization of another law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which she said leaves open the potential for warrantless wiretaps.
Nonetheless, Obama promised to change the Patriot Act to increase oversight of government surveillance. He didn't say how robust that oversight would be, and even the critics agree that the country has more today than before. We rate this Promise Kept.