The White House is set to propose major changes to the NSA phone metadata surveillance program amid criticism over citizens’ privacy
President Obama is set to announce a new proposal designed to scale back one of the most sweeping and controversial national security surveillance programs in U.S. history, according to multiple reports published late Monday.
The proposal, which will be presented to Congress, would end the National Security Agency’s collection of vast amounts of data about U.S. phone calls, according to the New York Times, which first reported the plan.
The Obama plan is the most significant White House effort yet to address the global furor that was sparked after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked reams of classified documents about the NSA’s secret snooping programs. The proposal would end the NSA’s bulk collection of so-called phone “metadata,” which includes the number the target called, when the call was made and how long the conversation lasted.
The NSA metadata collection program is part of a secret surveillance campaign that President George W. Bush approved after the 9/11 attacks. It remained hidden from the public for years until the Snowden revelations.
Under the proposal, the phone records would instead be kept in the hands of phone companies. Those companies would not be required to retain the data for a longer period of time than they do now, the Times reported. The proposed policy shift was not unexpected — it was one of the major recommendations of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which delivered its report in December.
The timing of the White House proposal is also not a surprise. The current court order authorizing the NSA program — which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) must approve every three months — expires this Friday. The U.S. has decided to renew the NSA metadata collection program for at least one more 90-day cycle, The Times said. The purpose of the program is to identify possible terrorist threats to the United States, but government officials have offered scant evidence that the system has actually thwarted any major terrorist attacks.
On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican, and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Maryland Democrat, will introduce bipartisan legislation also designed to scale back the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata. The two lawmakers told the Washington Post on Monday that their goal is that their bill “can be the compromise vehicle that arrives at the president’s desk.”
The White House proposal differs from the Rogers-Ruppersberger legislation in key respects. The former would maintain FISC oversight with respect to individual phone record orders, while the latter “would have the court issue an overarching order authorizing the program, but allow the NSA to issue subpoenas for specific phone records without prior judicial approval,” The Times reports.
Instead of collecting and storing the phone records of millions of Americans, the White House proposes to obtain “individual orders” from the FISC that apply “only to records linked to phone numbers a judge agrees are likely tied to terrorism,” the paper reported. Under the current policy, the NSA holds the phone data for five years, under authorization by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
The proposal will not require that phone companies retain the data “longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require,” the paper reported, after intelligence agencies determined that the impact of that change “would be small because older data is less important.”
Under the new system, the FISC would require the phone companies to “swiftly provide” phone records “on a continuing basis,” including data about “any new calls placed or received after the order is received,” the Times reported. The new system would also allow the U.S. to seek phone records for people “two calls, or ‘hops,’ removed” from the original number that is being scrutinized, according to the paper.
Lauren Weinstein, a tech policy expert and privacy advocate, expressed guarded optimism about the White House proposal. “On its face, this sounds like a definite improvement over the status quo of the program, but the devil will be in the details,” Weinstein said.
Representatives of Verizon and AT&T declined to comment on the White House proposal. A Sprint spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. Earlier this year, both AT&T and Verizon began issuing so-called “transparency reports” providing data on the number of law enforcement requests for customer information that the company receives in the U.S. and other countries. Those reports do not separately disclose information about orders made under FISA, but instead combine such orders with other government requests.
Source Article from http://time.com/36455/obama-nsa-proposal/