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US Phone Companies Fight Possible Changes In Data Collection

  • Kent Klein

President Barack Obama is expected to announce Friday that he will modify the way U.S. intelligence agencies collect information. The president is said to be backing away from a proposal to have the National Security Agency transfer its vast records of phone calls to telecommunications companies.

The reforms will not be as far-reaching as a presidential advisory committee recommended, according to a report in The New York Times.

The committee advised the president to order the NSA to stop storing the records of millions of phone calls and, instead, have phone companies - or some third party - do it.

The Times says Obama will not issue that order Friday, but will ask Congress to help him decide how best to store the data.

The NSA says its broad collection of so-called metadata is necessary to fight terrorism.

The proposal to move phone records from NSA control was meant to blunt criticism that the bulk collection threatens privacy.

The NSA would then need a warrant to access the information - which includes phone logs, but not the content of conversations - said James Andrew Lewis, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The phone companies already have the metadata. Metadata, despite all the noise, is basically your phone bill. So they’ve got it, and NSA could get it from them with a warrant any time they wanted. NSA doesn’t need to hold it, and the phone companies already have it,” said Lewis.

Attorney Michael Sussmann said the companies he represents fear they could be sued, and would have to spend more time and money to give the information to other parties.

"So an insurance company could issue a subpoena. There could be a court order in a divorce case. All the other reasons that people would want phone company records, there are that many more records for them to request," said Sussmann.

And the idea of moving the data to the phone companies does not satisfy critics, including Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.

“It may create as many privacy concerns as it solves. Indeed, private companies seem to be allowing their customers’ information to be hacked on what seems to be a daily basis,” said Grassley.

Leslie Harris, president of Washington's Center for Democracy and Technology, said any mass collection of phone records, by government or by private industry, threatens privacy.

"And certainly moving that data to telephone companies or to some third party doesn't fix the concerns about risk. But if the whole focus is on where the data is held, then I think the president has missed the point," aid Harris.

The president is expected to adopt his advisers' suggestion to reduce the number of people whose records can be examined by the NSA, and reduce the number of years the data can be kept.

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