President Obama formally confirmed a much-anticipated change to the NSA's bulk phone metadata collection programs: telephone companies — not the NSA — will store that data in bulk going forward. "Having carefully considered the available options," Obama said in a written statement, "I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk." That data will now stay in the hands of the telephone companies, who will keep it for the "length of time it currently does today."
The plan itself already has approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, but Obama isn't going to act unilaterally to shut off the NSA's collection program (we've explained why here). Given that Congress won't create, agree upon, and pass the needed legislation to enact this plan before the current program goes up for renewal tomorrow, the NSA will get one more 90-day renewal from the FISA court for the collection program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. After those 90 days are up, the government will have to get orders from the FISA court in order to access the bulk records. However, a statement from the White House notes that the government will be able to bypass the court and query the telephony metadata collection without an order in an "an emergency situation."
The NSA reform proposal released by the White House contains a few more changes, some of which are already at least partially in place:
- Consistent with a reform announced in January, queries can only produce records within" two hops of the selection term being used."
- The government won't have to go back to FISA court every time they query on a certain target — court orders will allow multiple queries "over a limited period of time without returning to the FISC for approval."
- The private companies will be under a court order to give "technical assistance" to make sure the government can query and obtain the records quickly and clearly.
Obama added that the White House has already talked with "key Congressional leadership" over the needed legislation, adding that he is "confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised."
Yesterday, Edward Snowden — the whistleblower who more or less started the conversation we're having about NSA scrutiny in the first place — gave a tentative thumbs up to the proposal: "this is a turning point, and it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public's seat at the table of government," Snowden said in a statement released by the ACLU.