President Barack Obama announced today that his administration will propose a sweeping set of changes to Congress regarding the National Security Agency's (NSA) current surveillance practices by the end of the week. Details of the imminent proposal reveal a particular focus on revamping the manner by which the NSA reviews phone records monitoring citizens' calling habits. Bulk data would be taken out of the government's hands and held instead by phone companies, which in turn would not be required to save the records any longer than current laws limit. Moreover, a new court order model would force the NSA to seek permission from a judge before accessing specific records. The New York Times reports: The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said. They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies. The NSA now retains the phone data for five years. But the administration considered and rejected imposing a mandate on phone companies that they hold on to their customers’ calling records for a period longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require—a burden that the companies had resisted shouldering and that was seen as a major obstacle to keeping the data in their hands. A senior administration official said that intelligence agencies had concluded that the operational impact of that change would be small because older data is less important. The NSA's reputation was dealt a severe blow last year when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents betraying the agency's Orwellian surveillance program. This proposal could begin to restore some of the trust that privacy advocates lost in the government with those revelations. The Obama administration has asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the current program—which is set to expire on Friday—for at minimum, one more 90-day cycle. Pending Congress's approval, the proposed reforms could begin to take root during that time.
Alex Wolff is a Spring 2014 editorial intern.