WASHINGTON – To assuage privacy concerns, the White House and some lawmakers are pushing changes to a surveillance program that would leave the bulk storage of millions of Americans’ telephone records in the hands of phone companies, even though they are convinced the information now held by the government is protected and question whether the changes would do more to protect privacy.
President Obama intends to ask Congress to end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. Instead, the government would ask phone companies to search their records for possible links to terrorism.
Obama said that any alternatives to the government holding onto the phone records posed difficult problems and raised privacy issues. And Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes the data is safer with the National Security Agency, even though he recommended it be moved from the agency’s custody.
“We’re changing the program based on a perception, not a reality,” Rogers said shortly before he introduced legislation that would end the program in its current form. Americans, Rogers said, don’t want the government holding onto their data.
“They just didn’t have a comfort level with the NSA holding, in bulk, metadata, even though we had huge levels of protection,” Rogers said.
The metadata is the number called, the number from which the call is made, and the duration and time of the call.
The White House proposal and the House Intelligence Committee’s proposal both shift the custody of the phone records to the phone companies, which already hold onto the records for 18 months as federal regulations require.
In January, Obama told his administration to come up with new options to the telephone records program by March 28. Obama said officials offered an option that he thinks is workable and addresses concerns raised by the public.
“Some of the dangers that people hypothesize when it came to bulk data, there were clear safeguards against,” Obama said Tuesday in the Netherlands. “But I recognize that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data. This proposal that’s been presented to me would eliminate that concern.”
Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who worked as a systems analyst, leaked details of the government’s secret phone records collection program last year.
Rep. C.A. Ruppersberger, D-Md., co-authored one bill that has the support of the phone companies. “There’s been a lot of negotiation with them, but I think we’ve come to this agreement,” he said.