NSA 'metadata' reform plans seek to defuse potential opposition

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 25, 2014 6:49pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Proposals by the White House and a congressional committee to reform the National Security Agency's collection of Americans' telephone "metadata" are being crafted with an eye toward defusing potential opposition from telephone companies and privacy advocates, sources familiar with the plans said.

Lawmakers are considering giving government compensation to phone companies for expenses incurred when the intelligence agency asks for searches of phone records, as well as offering the firms greater protection against lawsuits challenging their compliance with those requests.

Under pressure to rein in the agency after revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, President Barack Obama plans to ask Congress to end the bulk collection and storage of records of millions of U.S. domestic phone calls.

The records, called "metadata," document 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.

Under Obama's plan, phone companies rather than the NSA would hold the information. The government would have to get permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review the data if it believes calls are connected to potential terror attacks.

A clause providing compensation to companies for their cooperation in metadata searches is contained in a reform bill announced by House Intelligence Committee leaders on Tuesday, said a person familiar with the bill's contents.

Another idea under discussion is to extend existing legal protections telephone companies have when responding to intelligence or law enforcement data requests to explicitly include metadata search requests, the sources said.

Representatives of key telecommunications companies and their Washington lobbying groups declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment.

Before Snowden's leaks the NSA had legal authority to collect and hold for five years metadata for all telephone calls inside the United States, though officials later conceded the spy agency had capacity to store only a relatively small proportion of that information. Although several courts declared NSA practices legal, Obama, facing political uproar, announced in January that he intended to eliminate bulk-metadata collection by the NSA aimed at U.S.-based telephone users.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, and ranking committee Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger introduced a reform proposal on Tuesday that is similar to the plan to end metadata collection that Obama is working on.

"We think that we have found a way to end the government's bulk collection of telephone metadata and still provide a mechanism to protect the United States and track those terrorists who are calling in to the United States to commit acts of terror," Rogers said.

Under their bill, the companies would not be required by law to store metadata for a set time period, said a source familiar with the bill.

This would place no additional costs or storage burdens on phone companies, the source said. This also means that if companies had not stored metadata sought by the NSA, or if it were in a more fragmentary form than the metadata which the NSA collected until recently, the spy agency would have to make do with whatever the company had stored. But the NSA could seek to require the company to collect such metadata from the time of the request.

Telephone companies are already required under a rule issued by the Federal Communications Commission to store some such data for 18 months for billing and other commercial purposes. But the rule does not specify the form in which companies are required to store it.

Both the Obama administration's unpublished proposal and the House Intelligence Committee plan leave unanswered questions about the NSA's collection of similar data from Americans email and online activity.

Tech companies, including Google Inc and Facebook Inc, have been pushing for more transparency, limitations and oversight to NSA digital surveillance.

(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Tom Brown)

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