Obama Plan Would End NSA Bulk Data Collection

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Photo: Mark Wilson/2014 Getty Images

Ten months after Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was still sweeping up and storing millions of call records, President Obama is urging Congress to put an end to the agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone data. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is preparing a legislative proposal which, if passed by Congress, would keep those records with phone companies. While the NSA stores phone metadata for five years, the companies would only have to keep the data for the 18 months already required by law. Senior administration officials say the NSA would only be able to obtain information about a specific suspicious number, and records for customers two calls removed from that number, after obtaining an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In a speech announcing various NSA reforms in January, President Obama said he would end the phone data program "as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata." Obama did not settle the issue of where the data should be stored, if not with the NSA. Instead, he asked the Justice Department and intelligence officials to come up with a plan by this Friday, March 28, which is when the program comes up for reauthorization. The Times reports that the Obama administration will ask the FISA court to renew the program for another 90 days to allow time to transition to the new program.

There are a number of bills on restructuring NSA surveillance before Congress, and one prominent proposal from leaders of the House Intelligence Committee is set to be unveiled on Tuesday, according to The Wall Street Journal. That bill would also have phone companies store and search metadata, but rather than obtaining a court order for each number, the NSA would only have to submit data searches for review by the surveillance court after they were conducted.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Times that the Obama administration proposal is "significant," and addresses the biggest concerns about the NSA program – though he wants to see an overhaul of all government surveillance authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That may be on the horizon; the law is up for reauthorization by Congress next year, and the Obama proposal asks for clarification on whether the bulk collection of phone data is actually legal under Section 215.