Obama Drops Plan to Store NSA Phone-Snooping Data With Third Parties


Reuters delivers a mixture of good and bad news for civil libertarians: the Obama Administration has dropped a plan to outsource the storage of cell-phone metadata to third-party vendors, but the Surveillance State is still very much interested in that data.

Actually, some critics of the surveillance program will have trouble finding any good news, since some thought putting the data in the hands of non-government stewards might reduce government intrusiveness a bit, while others worried that the proposal would increase the danger of security breaches.

Under the proposal floated by a Presidential review panel, telephone call “metadata” generated inside the United States, which NSA began collecting in bulk after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, could instead be collected and retained by an unspecified private third party.

The Obama administration has decided, however, that the option of having a private third party collect and retain the telephone metadata is unworkable for both legal and practical reasons. “I think that’s accurate for right now,” a senior U.S. security official said.

Telephone “metadata” includes records of which telephone number calls which other number, when the calls were made and how long they lasted. Metadata does not include the content of the calls.

An alternative proposal, which U.S. officials said the administration is still considering, would have telecommunications firms collect and retain such data.

The senior U.S. security official said that among the concerns officials had when examining that option was putting security protocols at risk.

The official also cited concerns about the extra costs of moving data from telecom companies to a third party, and in a format which the government agencies found easy to use. The official said there would be no significant cost to the government to require telecom providers to hold the data.

Perhaps leaving the telecom companies in charge of the data is the best approach, given that it’s cost-effective, and involves the least amount of movement from source to storage. From a public-relations standpoint, the goal of these post-Snowden reform proposals is to erase the image of phone companies “giving our phone data to the government.” If the companies are storing the data themselves and making it accessible to the government, the public’s comfort level with the process might increase.

It’s not clear just how uncomfortable the general public is with any of this, especially in the wake of more high-profile terrorism news, filling the airwaves with discussions of sleeper cells and “lone wolf” jihadis. The Snowden storm blew in with a flurry of polls showing voters, especially young voters, were outraged by the Surveillance State revelations, but more recent surveys show a pronounced shift back to favoring security over privacy. The latest Washington Post / ABC News poll on the subject shows that even young adults are evenly divided, with 48 percent in favor of prioritizing the investigation of terror threats, versus 47 percent who feel protecting citizens’ privacy is more important.

There would appear to be considerable evidence for the argument that public opinion on the subject is driven more by current events and the intensity of news coverage than thorough consideration of the privacy challenges posed by the Internet era. Modest gestures to dispel the creepy image of intelligence agents stashing terabytes of phone surveillance data in huge computerized vaults, to be riffled through at their leisure, might be all it takes to keep public opinion comfortably on the side of security… at least until they are presented with an outrageous example of abuse perpetrated against law-abiding citizens.