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Obama abandons telephone data spying reform proposal: U.S. officials

President Barack Obama asks for his coat back after feeling the cold air prior to his departure on Air Force One at Forbes Field in Topeka, Kansas, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital-Journal, Chris Neal)

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama's administration has quietly abandoned a proposal it had been considering to put raw U.S. telephone call data collected by the National Security Agency under non-governmental control, several U.S. security officials said.

Obama promised changes in the government's handling of such data in a speech a year ago after revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the extent of the agency's electronic surveillance of Americans' communications.

Under the proposal floated by a Presidential review panel, telephone call "metadata" generated inside the United States, which NSA began collecting in bulk after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, could instead be collected and retained by an unspecified private third party.

The Obama administration has decided, however, that the option of having a private third party collect and retain the telephone metadata is unworkable for both legal and practical reasons. "I think that's accurate for right now," a senior U.S. security official said.

Telephone "metadata" includes records of which telephone number calls which other number, when the calls were made and how long they lasted. Metadata does not include the content of the calls.

An alternative proposal, which U.S. officials said the administration is still considering, would have telecommunications firms collect and retain such data.

The senior U.S. security official said that among the concerns officials had when examining that option was putting security protocols at risk.

The official also cited concerns about the extra costs of moving data from telecom companies to a third party, and in a format which the government agencies found easy to use. The official said there would be no significant cost to the government to require telecom providers to hold the data.

The official said that no final decision had been made on the issue, but said the President's goal remained that the government would no longer hold the data.

The law which NSA has cited to authorize its bulk collection of U.S. telephone metadata expires in June.

Officials said Congress had made various proposals to change or substantially reform legal authorities for collection and retention of the metadata but had not approved any specific legislation.

Shawn Turner, a White House spokesman, said the Office of Director of National Intelligence was expected to issue a report in early February that will chart progress on reforms Obama ordered a year ago in U.S. surveillance programs.

 

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