NSA phone metadata collection program renewed for 90 days

Reauthorization was needed to ensure continuity while changes are made, feds say

The Obama Administration has secured a 90-day extension of the National Security Agency's (NSA's) controversial authority to collect phone metadata records on U.S. customers under Section 215 of the U.S.A Patriot Act.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which oversees the data collection program, granted a reauthorization request filed by the U.S. Justice Department last week.

The court's order expires on June 20. It basically grants the NSA continued authority to collect phone record information such as the originating and dialed number, call time and duration, location data, calling card numbers and other data belonging to U.S. phone customers.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks about the bulk telephony metadata collection program last year fueled widespread concerns of dragnet domestic surveillance by the spy agency.

The NSA and the Administration have maintained the program is vital to detecting and stopping terror plots.

Though rights groups have challenged the government's authority to collect the data, the NSA has insisted that the Patriot Act allows it to collect the data. Even so, the widespread privacy and civil rights concerns prompted by the Snowden leaks pushed the White House to announce substantial changes to the program.

The changes are being phased in. One set of changes, announced by the White House in January requires the NSA to obtain FISC approval before it can query metadata, except in the case of a national emergency.

Query results are also required to be limited to within two hops of the search term, instead of three hops previously. The recent 90-day reauthorization requires the NSA to abide by these two conditions.

Over the long term, the Obama Administration also wants the metadata collected by the NSA to remain with the telephone companies rather than with the government. The administration has said that it will seek a legal mechanism under which the NSA would be able to obtain data it requires for anti-terror investigations directly from the phone companies.

However, Congress will need to pass legislation for this change to be implemented.

The government's decision to seek reauthorization of the existing program was prompted by the fact that the legislation is not yet in place, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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