Obama Is Ready to Give Up on the NSA's Unhelpful, Embarrassing Metadata Program

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President Obama is set to propose that the NSA stop collecting phone metadata. Instead, phone companies will keep the metadata -- as they always did -- and provide it to the NSA after the agency obtains an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

According to the New York Times (citing unnamed "senior administration officials"):

The N.S.A. now retains the phone data for five years. But the administration considered and rejected imposing a mandate on phone companies that they hold onto their customers’ calling records for a period longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require — a burden that the companies had resisted and that was seen as a major obstacle to keeping the data in their hands. A senior administration official said that intelligence agencies had concluded that the impact of that change would be small because older data is less important.

Of course, the newer data's importance is also debatable. Obama and NSA officials have said that the metadata collection program thwarted terrorist attacks, but so far no evidence of this has been found. Obama's decision to stop the metadata collection indicates that he, too, isn't convinced as to the program's usefulness.

The proposal would be a change for the administration, which had up until now defended the metadata collection program even after his own review panel suggested ending it. Obama said in January that he was looking for ways to keep the NSA effective without collecting metadata. This appears to be his solution.

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As the article notes, this proposal will join several bills concerning the metadata collection program set to go before Congress, including one from the House Intelligence Committee, as described by the Guardian:

A draft of the bill acquired by the Guardian proposes the acquisition of such phone or email data for up to a year and would not necessarily require prior approval by a judge. Authorisation of the collection would come jointly from the US attorney general and director of national intelligence.

In essence, the draft bill gets rid of bulk collection, but makes it easier for government authorities to collect metadata on individuals inside the US suspected of involvement with a foreign power

In this bill, too, phone companies would keep the metadata -- not the NSA. 

The metadata collection program first came to the world's attention after contractor Edward Snowden leaked it to journalists at the Washington Post and the Guardian. Snowden is currently being blamed by "intelligence officials" for the Russian annexation of Crimea.


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.