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Obama, Legislators Tackle Bulk Surveillance Issue

Obama, Legislators Tackle Bulk Surveillance Issue

Politicians are eager to do something about the NSA's bulk surveillance program, but their ideas so far seem all over the map. The administration wants to rein in the agency, while House Republicans want to give it more rope. "I don't think any of the solutions put forth are worth anything," said Tirias Research analyst Jim McGregor. "They're all positioning themselves for political gain."

By Richard Adhikari
03/25/14 1:28 PM PT

The political frenzy over the United States National Security Agency's collection of Americans' bulk telephone metadata is escalating, with both the White House and the U.S. House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee announcing plans to introduce legislation to regulate the practice.

The White House's proposal reportedly would require phone companies to store the data and provide it under a court order.

The House Intelligence Committee's legislation, drafted by NSA supporters Mike Rogers and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, would lower the bar for surveillance.

Meanwhile, an earlier bill, sponsored by Rep. John Sensenbrenner, a coauthor of the USA Patriot Act, is widely viewed as more likely to rein in surveillance, but it is languishing in the House.

Politics as Usual

"It's all a political ploy," Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst at Tirias Research, told TechNewsWorld.

"Every government in the world spies on people, and everyone knows the U.S. government is doing it, but when something big like this makes the news, politicians stand up and make noise because they want their constituents to take notice and they want to look like power players," he continued.

Deconstructing the White House's Moves

The administration's plan, to let telcos hold the data rather than the NSA, is nothing new, having been proposed by President Obama back in January.

It was severely criticized at the time.

The administration's proposal reportedly would require telcos to provide data about suspected terrorists after getting approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Telcos reportedly will have to make available on a real-time, ongoing basis, ongoing data about new calls made to or from a suspect's number after the court order is served.

The Obama administration reportedly also will renew the current NSA bulk metadata collection program, which expires Friday, for another 90 days.

"Compared to the grand scope of the surveillance state that we have seen laid bare before us this past year, this is a sensible proposal for reform but only a first step," Matt Simons, director of social and economic justice at ThoughtWorks, told TechNewsWorld. "We welcome the implicit recognition by the president that the security agencies need to be reined in."

The House Intel Committee's Plan

Drafted by strong NSA supporters Mike Rogers and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, the House Intelligence Committee's proposal reportedly would bar the mass collection of different types of information, ranging from phone calls to browsing the Internet to location data, and require that the government serve a directive on a telco asked for data.

However, it reportedly does not require court approval tying a request for information to a specific phone number.

Instead, a court would make that determination after the FBI presented a telco with a request for data linked to a number. The data would be expunged after the FBI had obtained the data, if a court did not rule that the number was linked to an agent of a foreign power, including a terrorist group.

The proposal has been criticized by Rep. Sensenbrenner as limiting, but not ending, bulk data collection.

2 Thumbs Down

The Ruppersberger bill would let intelligence agencies get individuals' data without prior court approval, while the president's plan pertains only to phone records, the Center for Democracy and Technology pointed out.

The White House's proposal may not ring true, at least for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is battling the Obama administration over destruction of records pertaining to surveillance. The administration has said its obligation to preserve evidence was limited to aspects of the surveillance program under the Bush administration.

"I don't think any of the solutions put forth are worth anything," McGregor said. "They're all positioning themselves for political gain."


Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.


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