Report: Obama Will End NSA Phone Data Collection

Shifting data collection to phone companies could decrease civil liberties, privacy advocates say.

President Barack Obama attends the opening plenary session of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 24, 2014, in The Hague, Netherlands.

President Barack Obama attends the opening plenary session of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 24 in The Hague, Netherlands. Obama set a March 28 deadline in January to decide how to reform the NSA program that tracks Americans' phone calls.

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President Barack Obama will unveil a legislative proposal to end the National Security Agency’s phone metadata collection, calling for phone companies – instead of the agency – to collect information, which is an option privacy advocates have said could further damage civil liberties, according to reports.

Obama’s proposal would have phone companies maintain call-record data for the 18 months that they currently do, and the NSA would be able to access the records only with permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, The New York Times reports. The NSA retains the phone data obtained from phone companies for five years on its own servers as part of the current system.

The office of the director of national intelligence and the Justice Department provided options to Obama on how to shift collection of phone records away from the NSA.

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During a speech in January, Obama set a March 28 deadline to decide on options to choose how to reform the program that tracks what calls Americans make and the duration of those phone calls. The upcoming deadline on Friday is when the current court order authorizing the metadata program expires, but Obama’s proposal would to renew the program in its current form for at least 90 days longer before changes are implemented, senior administration officials told the Times.

Privacy advocates have called for a change to the current system but those groups – including the American Civil Liberties Union and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute – have said the option of having phone companies keep the records for the NSA would be a means to continue the current surveillance.

A legislative proposal from the House Intelligence Committee might be even less appealing to privacy watchdogs. Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and ranking Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland are expected to unveil a proposal Tuesday that would also shift duties for collecting call record data to phone companies, the Times reports. The bill would have the FISA Court authorize the program, but would allow the NSA to subpoena phone records without prior court approval, according to the Times.

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Keeping the current limits on companies storing call records data is an important part of these proposed reforms, privacy advocates have said. If the phone companies store records for longer periods of time than they currently do, that would eliminate an important "de facto civil liberties protection," Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU, has said. Not only would the NSA be able to review who you called and when, but participants in a wide range of civil and criminal disputes would be able to as well, including divorce or assault trials.

The Section 215 provision of the Patriot Act that allows the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data ends in June 2015 unless it is reauthorized by Congress. Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has said the Obama administration should work with Congress to amend the surveillance powers of the NSA so the agency better observes civil liberties, or Congress might not reauthorize the provision in 2015. Sensenbrenner has introduced the Freedom Act, which would end the NSA bulk data collection program outright.