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Obama to urge revamp of phone call surveillance

By Agencies in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2014-03-26 09:08

Anticipated proposal would strip spy agency of data storage function

The White House wants the US National Security Agency to get out of the business of sweeping up and storing vast amounts of data on US citizens' phone calls.

The Obama administration was expected to propose this week that Congress overhaul the electronic surveillance program by having phone companies themselves hold on to the call records, which they are doing already anyway, according to a government official briefed on the proposal. The New York Times first reported the details of the proposal on Monday night. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the plan.

If Congress approves, the government will stop collecting the information, known as metadata, which lists millions of phone calls made in the United States. The surveillance program triggered a national debate over privacy rights when its extent was exposed last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The White House was also expected to propose that the records be kept for 18 months, as the phone companies are already required to do by federal regulation, and that it be able to preserve its ability to see certain records in specific circumstances approved by a judge.

According to a senior administration official, the president will present "a sound approach to ensuring the government no longer collects or holds this data, but still ensures that the government has access to the information it needs to meet the national security needs his team has identified".

The president's plan relies on Congress to pass legislation - something that has so far seemed unlikely.

Snowden is currently in Russia under temporary asylum. Since he disclosed details of the secret phone records collection program, privacy advocates were outraged to learn that the government was holding on to phone records of innocent US citizens for up to five years. US President Barack Obama promised to make changes to the program in an effort to win back public support.

In January, Obama tasked his administration with coming up with an alternative to the current counterterrorism program and suggested that the phone-companies option was the most likely. However, he also said that option posed problems.

"This will not be simple," Obama said. An independent review panel suggested that the practice of the government collecting phone records be replaced by a third party or the phone companies holding the records, and the government would access them as needed.

"Both of these options pose difficult problems," Obama said in January. "Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns."

And the phone companies have been against this option as well.

In several meetings with White House staff since December, phone company executives came out strongly opposed to proposals that would shift custody of the records from the NSA to the telecoms. The executives said they would only accept such changes to the NSA program if they were legally required and if that requirement were spelled out in legislation.



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