Obama’s Plan to Rein In NSA Phone Sweeps

The president plans to limit the NSA’s most controversial program. Will it be enough to calm privacy fears?

President Obama speaks as he is joined by representatives and community members from San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma during an East Room event January 9, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC. President Obama announced the five areas as his administration's first five 'Promise Zones' to help the local communities to combat poverty.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Jan. 17, 2014, 3:18 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama will out­line a plan Fri­day to lim­it the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency pro­gram that col­lects re­cords on vir­tu­ally all phone calls with­in the United States.

A seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial told Na­tion­al Journ­al that Obama will an­nounce an end to the pro­gram “as it cur­rently ex­ists.”

The NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of phone re­cords is the most con­tro­ver­sial rev­el­a­tion from the leaks by Ed­ward Snowden, and end­ing the pro­gram is the top goal of pri­vacy ad­voc­ates.

Obama will re­quire the NSA to ob­tain a court or­der every time it wants to search through the phone re­cord data­base, ac­cord­ing to the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial.

Pre­vi­ously, NSA ana­lysts were sup­posed to have “reas­on­able, ar­tic­ul­able sus­pi­cion” that a phone num­ber was as­so­ci­ated with ter­ror­ism be­fore ac­cess­ing its call his­tory, but the ana­lysts could per­form the search without any court ap­prov­al.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said Obama has asked At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er and top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials to come up with a pro­pos­al to “pre­serve the ne­ces­sary cap­ab­il­it­ies of the pro­gram” without the gov­ern­ment hold­ing the phone re­cords.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates have urged the gov­ern­ment to give up con­trol over the vast phone data­base. The pres­id­ent’s re­view pan­el also re­com­men­ded that a private group hold the re­cords.

But pri­vacy ad­voc­ates would fiercely op­pose any man­date re­quir­ing tele­com com­pan­ies to main­tain the re­cords. And the com­pan­ies them­selves have no in­terest in new reg­u­lat­ory re­quire­ments to over­see the massive data­base.

The data­base in­cludes “metadata” such as phone num­bers, call times, and call dur­a­tions — but not the con­tents of any con­ver­sa­tions.

In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials ar­gue that the pro­gram, which they say was au­thor­ized un­der Sec­tion 215 of the Pat­ri­ot Act, is crit­ic­al for “con­nect­ing the dots” and com­batting ter­ror­ism.

But the pres­id­ent’s own re­view pan­el con­cluded that the pro­gram has not been re­spons­ible for pre­vent­ing any ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

“The pres­id­ent be­lieves that the 215 pro­gram ad­dresses im­port­ant cap­ab­il­it­ies that al­low us to counter ter­ror­ism, but that we can and should be able to pre­serve those cap­ab­il­it­ies while ad­dress­ing the pri­vacy and civil liber­ties con­cerns that are raised by the gov­ern­ment hold­ing this metadata,” the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates ex­pressed cau­tious op­tim­ism about Obama’s pro­pos­al, but noted that the biggest ques­tion is wheth­er the gov­ern­ment will im­pose a data re­ten­tion man­date on the phone com­pan­ies.

“This is an im­port­ant first step,” Michelle Richard­son, a lob­by­ist for the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, said. “We will work to con­vince them that cur­rent cor­por­ate data re­ten­tion prac­tices are suf­fi­cient and that new re­ten­tion re­gimes are not ne­ces­sary.”

Greg No­jeim, an at­tor­ney for the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, said the pro­gram “needs to be ended, not merely mod­i­fied.”

“If the Pres­id­ent’s en­dgame is to re­quire tele­coms to main­tain the data them­selves so the NSA can query it, that plan is go­ing nowhere, fast,” he said.

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