White House Outlines End to Bulk Telecom Data Collection Regime

The White House has announced its path forward for collecting telecom data for national security purposes after it ends the way in which the National Security Agency formerly collected records in bulk. That new path will not include making telecom companies replace the government as a warehouse for data, which had been one of the suggested options to the government holding that data.

“We are incredibly pleased that the President has recognized that allowing the NSA to collect and store every American’s phone records is not actually necessary to protect national security," said Kevin Bankston, policy director of New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "It is also a relief that the Administration proposal would not require phone companies to store any records that they don’t already store, and that it would require an individualized court order before the NSA could obtain any specific records."

In the wake of revelations from NSA analyst/leaker Edward Snowden, the President last August promised greater oversight of info collection programs, better transparency about the legal underpinnings, and new constraints on the use of that authority.

The President announced in January that much-maligned bulk collection program was ending but had not said what would replace it.

After consulting with industry, privacy groups, Justice and the CIA came up with some options and the President has decided on the following, according to the White House, although he will also need help from Congress in the form of legislation.

"The government will not collect these telephone records in bulk; rather, the records would remain at the telephone companies for the length of time they currently do today."

"Absent an emergency situation, the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns."

"The records provided to the government in response to queries would only be within two hops of the selection term being used, and the government’s handling of any records it acquires will be governed by minimization procedures approved by the FISC."

"The court-approved numbers could be used to query the data over a limited period of time without returning to the FISC for approval, and the production of records would be ongoing and prospective; and the companies would be compelled by court order to provide technical assistance to ensure that the records can be queried and that results are transmitted to the government in a usable format and in a timely manner."

The current regime, with the reforms already undertaken that did not require legislation, is scheduled for review by FISC March 28. Since it is highly unlikely new legislation could pass in a day, the White House has asked DOJ to seek a 90-day reauthorization from FISC.

Reforms already instituted include that unless it is a national security emergency, the government can only look at metadata after a judge approves it, and only specific numbers. It can also only look at data two steps removed from the original number, rather than three.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.