Proposal still allows NSA to review too much phone data, critics say

By SAM STURGIS | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: March 28, 2014

WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday announced President Barack Obama’s proposal to end the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of information about Americans’ cellphone usage, confirming that under the president’s plan, cellphone companies would be required to provide so-called metadata only on specific numbers when ordered by a court.

But the details of the proposal still drew opposition from some civil liberties advocates, who said the president was allowing the NSA too much discretion by letting it review data from numbers two “hops” removed from the targeted phone. Under the proposal, the NSA could investigate all the numbers that had been in touch with the targeted phone — the first “hop” — plus all the numbers that the owners of those phones had contacted — the second “hop.”

“Being ‘two-hops’ from a suspicious person should not subject innocent Americans to a government data grab,” said Mike German of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “The president’s proposal fails to address, and in fact perpetuates, the collection of completely innocent Americans’ data for inclusion in the NSA’s ‘corporate store,’ where it can be used for myriad purposes, not just terrorism.”

The president’s proposal also ran into questions from some cellphone providers, who objected to suggestions that proposed legislation would mandate how phone records should be kept so that they can be accessed quickly by the NSA once a court order has been issued. The proposal, White House officials said, would require the phone companies to keep records for 18 months, something already required by federal law. Under its now-abandoned program, the NSA had been keeping the records for five years.

“The reformed collection process should not require companies to store data for longer than, or in formats that differ from, what they already do for business purposes,” Randal Milch, the executive vice president of public policy and general counsel for Verizon, one the country’s largest cellphone providers, said in a statement Thursday.

“If Verizon receives a valid request for business records, we will respond in a timely way, but companies should not be required to create, analyze or retain records for reasons other than business purposes,” Milch added.

The president’s proposal to revamp the NSA program came nine months after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret rulings from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that ordered cellphone carriers to provide to the NSA, on a daily basis, data on cellphone usage for all of their customers — tens of millions of accounts.

Under the terms of the order, the NSA was allowed to sort through the information looking for suspicious activity. The court imposed guidelines on the NSA intended to guard privacy, and Obama administration officials noted repeatedly that the order did not allow the NSA to eavesdrop on actual conversations.

But privacy advocates argued that the metadata, which included numbers called and the length of conversations, still allowed the government to track details of individuals’ private lives.

Defenders of the program, including Obama, said that it had been critical to thwarting terrorist attacks. But two independent reviews of the program, including by a panel appointed by the White House, found no evidence that the metadata program had been critical to counterterrorism.

In January, Obama announced that he was halting the collection and requiring the NSA to obtain court orders for specific numbers before it could review cellphone activity. On Thursday, the White House said the Justice Department would ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to issue another order allowing the NSA to review cellphone metadata on Friday, when the current authorization expires. But officials said the new order would be consistent with the new limits already in place.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a longtime critic of the program, called the president’s proposal “really encouraging.”


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