Ron Wyden Has a “Feeling” Obama May Halt Bulk Phone Record Collection

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The New York Times reports that privacy advocates may soon win a bit of a victory:

Signs of a popular backlash against the security agency’s large-scale collection of the personal data of Americans have convinced a leading privacy advocate in Congress that the Obama administration may soon begin to back away from the most aggressive components of the agency’s domestic surveillance programs.

The advocate, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview Thursday that he believed that the security agency might soon abandon the bulk collection of the telephone calling data of millions of Americans.

….“I have a feeling that the administration is getting concerned about the bulk phone records collection, and that they are thinking about whether to move administratively to stop it,” he said. He added he believed that the continuing controversy prompted by Mr. Snowden had changed the political calculus in Congress over the balance between security and civil liberties, which has been heavily weighted toward security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I’m not holding my breath on this, but good news on the civil liberties front is hard to come by these days, so I wanted to pass it along.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s something I want to toss out. As we all know, the NSA collects records of pretty much every phone call made in the United States and stores them in a database. Everyone agrees that there would be no problem if NSA accessed only specific phone records via a warrant approved by a court, but this mass collection has raised fears that they’re accessing records that no court would allow them to if they had to apply for a particularized warrant. They can just trawl through the records anytime they want with no oversight.

Now, NSA would argue that they have good reason for collecting all this data. If they don’t, phone companies will purge it and it will be gone forever. What’s more, if you’re doing contact chaining, it’s genuinely more efficient to have a single database, rather than having to track down the chains via multiple phone companies.

So here’s my question: Why can’t we authorize some other agency to preserve this data, and allow NSA access to it only via a particularized warrant issued by a court? NSA claims they only access the records a few hundred times a year, so it wouldn’t be a big imposition. Are there legal issues that would prevent this? Or what? One way or another, it seems like there ought to be some way to preserve records in a useful form but guarantee that they can’t be misused by the intelligence community.

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