WASHINGTON — The Obama administration provided details on Thursday on its plan to end the government’s vast bulk collection of data about phone calls made in the United States, including new procedures to get judicial approval before asking companies for such records.
Under the plan, mobile carriers would have to provide data from their records quickly and in a usable format when requested by the government, according to a senior administration official on condition of anonymity.
The plan would also allow the government to seek such data without a court order in an national security emergency. But some U.S. officials who examined the president’s proposals said they left some important issues unresolved.
Under the Administration’s plan, instead of phone metadata being collected and stored in bulk from telephone companies by the National Security Agency, companies themselves would hold the data and be required to specific, court-approved queries about it from the NSA.
However, officials familiar with current laws and regulations governing how phone companies handle such data said that Obama’s plan raises, but does not answer, significant practical questions about how companies would collect and store such data.
President Barack Obama, in a statement:
“I am confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised.”
Some key aspects of Obama’s plan will need Congressional approval. Congressional officials and the Administration had not yet sent to Capitol Hill its proposed legislative language.
The U.S. government began collecting so-called phone metadata, most controversially including the metadata of calls made within the United States, shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Metadata consists of a record of which phone numbers call which other numbers, when calls were made and how long they last. It does not include the content of the call.
The existing program’s defenders have claimed intelligence agencies can use the data to find connections between people plotting attacks overseas and co-conspirators inside the United States, while critics viewed it as an infringement of privacy rights.
Obama has been under pressure to rein in surveillance since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year disclosed classified details about the breadth of the government’s intelligence gathering, sparking an international uproar.
A special review panel appointed by Obama to review the metadata collection program reported late last year that there was little evidence that it had to a single major counter-terrorism breakthrough. Intelligence officials now refer to metadata collection as more of an “insurance policy” than a front-line spying tool.