The Obama administration will soon unveil proposed legislation to end the collection and storage of phone records by the National Security Agency. Should Congress approve the legislation, according to Reuters, the responsibility for storing such data would shift from the NSA to the phone companies.
The collection of such “metadata” by the government agency was exposed last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The revelations sparked a national debate over privacy rights. The White House has been trying to ease public concern since that time.
In a January speech, President Barack Obama said he wanted to get the government out of the business of collecting and storing phone data but wanted to preserve the capabilities of the program. According to the New York Times, the president instructed the Justice Department to come up with a new plan by March 28.
"The president … in the coming days, after concluding ongoing consultations with Congress, including the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, will put forward a sound approach to ensuring the government no longer collects or holds this data," one White House official said in a statement.
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The new plan, according to officials, would require phone companies to hold on to metadata for 18 months. Under the current program, the NSA holds data for five years. The five-year time period had been a major obstacle for phone companies who lacked the infrastructure for storage of such a large volume of information. Justice Department officials decided that 18 months would be a sufficient amount of time because the older data is less pertinent to investigations. Phone companies would be required to quickly turn over data to government officials should it be needed for an investigation.
The president’s proposal would renew the current program for another 90-day cycle, but the changes would take effect as that cycle came to a close.
The White House proposal will have competition in the House of Representatives. The New York Times reports that a bill in the House Intelligence Committee is currently under consideration. The bill proposes changes to the current program but preserves quite a bit of authority for the NSA. The proposal would require an overarching court order to authorize the program, but the NSA would retain subpoena powers for requesting information from phone companies.
The Obama administration’s proposal, however, would require that a court intervene each time and give specific approval in cases before the NSA would be allowed to acquire data.
Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the news of the president’s proposed changes but said there were still questions about the details.
“We have many questions about the details, but we agree with the administration that the NSA’s bulk collection of call records should end,” he said. “As we’ve argued since the program was disclosed, the government can track suspected terrorists without placing millions of people under permanent surveillance.”