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After months of pressure from domestic and overseas allies and privacy advocates, US President Barack Obama on Thursday announced a package of reforms for the National Security Agency’s surveillance programme specifically regarding the collecting and storing of phone metadata.
The White House plan would have phone metadata be collected and stored in bulk by communications companies themselves, rather than the NSA.
The compiling of information occurs as these programmes collect what is known as metadata. In simplest terms, this is data that reveals information about other data.
If two people are engaged in a cell phone (or email) conversation, the data of the caller is collected and used to reveal data about the recipient. This means that phone numbers, serial numbers, and geo-location of both the caller and recipient are collected.
“Having carefully considered the available options, I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk. Instead, the data should remain at the telephone companies for the length of time it currently does today,” said Obama in a statement issued by the White House.
While phone companies will store the metadata, US authorities can acquire them but only with individual orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and in response to specific, court-approved queries about the data from the NSA.
“I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held,” said Obama.
In late December, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the NSA spying programme was likely unconstitutional because the US government had failed to indicate how its domestic collection of metadata had protected Americans from imminent attack.
The judge’s ruling was based on critical intelligence data leaked to the press by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, in June.
Snowden blew the whistle on Washington’s domestic and foreign surveillance programme and consequently unleashed a torrent of diplomatic tension caused by revelations that the US was spying on ally and enemy alike.
He then fled to Hong Kong, followed by five weeks in limbo in the transit area of Moscow’s airport. He was granted asylum in Russia in late July. Since then, diplomatic relations between the US and Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France and others have been tested.
Some key aspects of the White House plan will now require approval from Congress, but sources there say the Obama Administration had not yet sent to Capitol Hill the new surveillance proposal.