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President Obama says controversial NSA phone record collection will continue

News by Andrew Kameka on Friday January 17, 2014.

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US President Barack Obama has responded to leaks about the controversial NSA spying program by announcing a series of changes in intelligence gathering efforts, including some reform about how the NSA treats metadata from phone companies. The programs will continue to collect information about calls placed and actually "intercept communications" (read text or listen to calls) as the NSA already does today. However, the president says that he will advocate more "transparency" about some activities.

Bulk collection of telephone records will also continue, though the government will only be able to search the phone record database if it discovers that phone calls are "two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three," Obama said. This will be done during a "transition period" as the government works to reform the program that collects phone numbers called and the length of conversation into a singular database. The Obama administration is still deciding how to move forward but made it clear that it will not stop gathering records. New ideas are expected for a reauthorization vote on March 28, but the following two courses have been suggested:

1) A third party would collect phone records from all providers (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) into a singular database. The government would only be able to access information "as needed" if it could prove that the information was relevant.

2) Several government agencies would cooperate through "better information sharing, and recent technological advances" in an ambiguous way that the president did not outline.

One way or another, bulk collection will continue. The only thing that is changing in that regard is who retains the records and the government offering "greater transparency" about how it accesses it. President Obama argued in his speech that these activities are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, so it will try to fix the system rather than destroy it. Civil liberties advocates and critics will surely point out that the system is the problem.

The full text of the president's speech is available here.

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Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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