Billions of bulk phone call records used for government surveillance programs should be stored with telecommunications providers rather than with the NSA, according to reports of a proposal from a presidential task forced examining reforms to surveillance authorities. Recommendations from the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology were presented to the President on Friday, but are not expected to be made public until next month, after the Administration completes its own internal review. The recommendation on phone record storage was among several proposals previewed in a recent article by The Wall Street Journal
Under the proposal, bulk phone metadata records collected by the NSA under Section 215 of the Patriot Act would be held either by phone companies or by a third-party organization, according to the Journal. The panel also suggested stricter standards be imposed before the NSA is allowed to search the records, according to the report.
Telecom companies appeared wary of the recommendation, with news reports suggesting the arrangement could impose new data retention requirements on the companies and expose them to additional storage and maintenance costs and potential liability if hackers gain access to the data, according to a Bloomberg report.
Although the exact contours of the task force’s proposal are not yet clear, the recommendation appears similar to the model that was adopted by the European Union in a directive in 2006 (and under national laws adopted in several EU Member States prior to the directive). Under the EU Data Retention Directive, telecom providers are required to retain certain categories of data for a period of six months to two years, and to make them available to law enforcement upon request.
It is unclear if Congress would support this type of change, which may require legislative approval. Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, praised the proposal, calling it “yet another confirmation that restructuring the program is both technically feasible and more protective of the privacy interests of the American people.” But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has introduced a bill that would largely maintain the bulk collection program, and preserve the ability of the NSA to collect records.
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander defended the controversial program before a Senate oversight hearing last week, calling it the agency’s best tool to “connect the dots” between different intelligence sources. Several bills pending in Congress aim to eliminate or significantly reform the program, as part of a series of measures designed to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.