NSA looks to offload US domestic phone data as Obama mulls reforms

Spy agency considers passing on domestic logs as President Obama mulls surveillance reforms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 10:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 1:41am

The National Security Agency is exploring how it could relinquish control of the massive database of domestic US phone logs that has been the focus of an intense debate, according to current and former officials.

The agency, in response to political and other pressures, is examining whether there are feasible ways for third parties such as the phone companies to hold the data while still allowing the agency to exploit the records, the officials said.

The intelligence community is motivated, in part, because Congress probably will not renew the NSA's bulk collection authority when the statute it is based on expires in June 2015.

It is also possible that Congress, which is debating legislation to halt the NSA programme, could take action earlier.

A former senior intelligence official said he expects that the White House "will start the path of shifting it to the phone companies" but that "it's not going to happen instantly".

There will be change, but it is unlikely there will be wholesale change

Describing one possible scenario, a second former intelligence official said: "The phone companies would run the analytics and provide you the analysis. Hey, this bad guy is talking to this bad guy."

But having the phone companies analyse the records on behalf of the government may still raise privacy, cost and other concerns.

At the same time, current and former officials say, the intelligence community is pushing back against a number of other recommendations by a White House-appointed advisory panel that include removing the cyberdefence mission from the NSA, ensuring the agency does not stockpile certain kinds of cyberweapons and requiring judicial approval of administrative subpoenas known as national security letters, or NSLs.

The move comes as US President Barack Obama studies the recommendations of the advisory panel and prepares to unveil his own set of intelligence and surveillance reforms as early as next week.

Obama last month said it was "possible" for the phone companies to hold the records, as opposed to the NSA - an idea advanced by the advisory group. The agency database, which contains billions of domestic telephone toll records, though not actual call content, is a counterterrorism tool that has drawn fire from civil liberties advocates and a number of lawmakers since its revelation in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

There are many obstacles to such a shift - not least the phone companies' stiff resistance. The companies have told the White House that they are opposed to being made to hold the data on behalf of the government for periods longer than they normally would. And key lawmakers in the Senate have studied the idea - including the possibility of paying companies to retain the data - and rejected it.

The NSA's director, General Keith Alexander, told the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies that the "NSA itself has seriously considered moving to a model in which the data are held by the private sector". But, according to a review group member, Alexander told the group "no one else wanted it - especially not the phone companies". Alexander, the member said, "described it as a 'bit of a hot potato'."

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Obama will make his remarks before the State of the Union address on January 28. The White House said that the president was to meet "leaders of the intelligence community" yesterday, and also consult members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a watchdog set up by Congress.

The former intelligence official said, "In the end … there will be change, but it is unlikely that there will be a wholesale change in how intelligence is collected and analysed."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse