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Phone metadata to end, as Obama ramps up NSA reform

President Obama this week outlined a plan that would stop the government's bulk collection of telephone metadata and more tightly control federal access to that information.

Congress needs to act to make the president's plan a reality, but if approved, phone metadata would remain with the phone providers rather than in vast government data centres. It would only be accessible to the feds via individual requests made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and data turned over must be "two hops of the selection term being used" rather than the current three.

Phone metadata includes originating and terminating phone numbers, mobile subscriber identity numbers, calling card numbers, as well as time and duration of call. Its collection made headlines last year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents that detailed how government agencies got their hands on it.

Officials originally defended the collection, saying that call details - like actual conversations - were not part of the metadata. But it was the scope that caught many peoples' attention. A 2013 Verizon order, for example, requested all phone data from the provider for a three-month period, which seemed excessive to some.

This uproar prompted President Obama in January to publicly pledge an overhaul of phone metadata collection. On 5 February, the FISC approved the president's request to overhaul metadata collection, also known as Section 215 after its placement in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Specifically, the president's plan says:

  • The government will not collect these telephone records in bulk; rather, the records would remain at the telephone companies for the length of time they currently do today.
  • Absent an emergency situation, the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns.
  • The records provided to the government in response to queries would only be within two hops of the selection term being used, and the government's handling of any records it acquires will be governed by minimisation procedures approved by the FISC.
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  • The court-approved numbers could be used to query the data over a limited period of time without returning to the FISC for approval, and the production of records would be ongoing and prospective.
  • The companies would be compelled by court order to provide technical assistance to ensure that the records can be queried and that results are transmitted to the government in a usable format and in a timely manner.

Members of Congress have proposed several metadata-related bills. Most recently, Reps. Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger, chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, introduced the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act of 2014, which bans bulk collection of phone metadata, as well as firearm sales records, library records, medical records, tax returns, educational records, and other sensitive personal records.

Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and member of the intelligence committee, has also introduced the Telephone Metadata Reform Act, which allows the government to query the data held by phone companies based on a judicially approved order.

In a statement, Schiff said he looks forward to working with Rogers and Ruppersberger "to ensure timely court approval of requests for metadata, and a vigorous adversarial process before the FISA court."

For more, check out ITProPortal's 10 scariest Snowden revelations.