Obama to propose ending NSA phone sweeps

2014-03-26 10:43
(Ole Spata, AFP)

(Ole Spata, AFP)

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Washington - The White House and some lawmakers are pushing forward with changes to a massive telephone surveillance programme that has raised privacy concerns from Republicans and Democrats alike since it was disclosed last year by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

The changes would leave the bulk storage of millions of Americans' telephone records in the hands of phone companies, even though lawmakers are convinced the information now held by the government is protected and question whether the changes would actually do more to protect privacy.

President Barack Obama intends to ask Congress to end the bulk collection of Americans' phone records. Instead, the government would ask phone companies to search their records for possible links to terrorism.

Details of the government's secret phone records collection programme were disclosed last year by Snowden. Privacy advocates were outraged to learn that the government was holding onto phone records of innocent Americans for up to five years. Obama promised to make changes to the programme in an effort to win back public support.

Obama said that any alternatives to the government holding onto the phone records posed difficult problems and raised privacy issues. And Republican Representative Mike Rogers, the chairperson of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes the data is safer with the National Security Agency, even though he recommended it be moved from the agency's custody.

"We're changing the programme based on a perception, not a reality," Rogers said shortly before he introduced legislation that would end the programme in its current form. Americans, Rogers said, don't want the government holding onto their data.

"They just didn't have a comfort level with the NSA holding, in bulk, metadata, even though we had huge levels of protection," Rogers said. "I do believe that privacy was better protected than you're going to see in the phone companies."

The metadata is the number called, the number from which the call is made, and the duration and time of the call, but not the content of the call or the callers' names.

‘Lot of mistrust’

The White House proposal, which has not been described in great detail yet, and the House Intelligence Committee's proposal both shift the custody of the phone records to the phone companies, which already hold onto the records for 18 months as federal regulations require.

In January, Obama tasked his administration with coming up with new options to the telephone records programme by 28 March. Obama said officials offered an option that he thinks is workable and addresses concerns raised by the public.

"I want to emphasise once again that some of the dangers that people hypothesise when it came to bulk data, there were clear safeguards against," Obama said on Tuesday at a news conference in the Netherlands at the end of a nuclear security summit.

"But I recognise that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data. This proposal that's been presented to me would eliminate that concern."

"After Snowden, there was a lot of mistrust, and we have to deal with that," Rogers said.

The president's proposal would require congressional action, something that so far has seemed unlikely. Multiple bills have been introduced, with proposals ranging from killing the programme outright to adding more layers of oversight.

The government plans to continue its bulk collection programme for at least three months. The 28 March deadline reflects the date that the current court authorisation for the bulk collection expires. The administration has asked a court to renew it for at least three months, not unlike what it's requested in the past.

"The president's reported plan to end the bulk collection of phone records is a crucial first step towards reining in the NSA's overreaching surveillance," said Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The change would replace the dragnet surveillance of millions of innocent people with targeted methods that are both effective and respect Americans' constitutional rights." Richardson also said the government should end other bulk collection programmes, as well.

The bulk phone records collection programme is set to expire in the summer. If Congress can't agree on changes before then, the programme would end completely.
- AP
Read more on:    nsa  |  edward snowden  |  barack obama  |  us  |  privacy
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