NSA reform shifts data collection to phone companies
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The US on Thursday unveiled plans to end the government's bulk collection of telephone records by calling on phone companies to collect such data instead, with the government only able to access it with court approval or in "emergency" situations.
Coming in response to a global outcry over leaked reports of the extensive monitoring programmes of the National Security Agency (NSA), the new plan would require private telephone companies to provide data from their records quickly and in a usable format when requested to do so by the government, a senior administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Calls for widespread reform of NSA practices followed disclosures about its activities leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama said the plan, which still needs congressional approval to come into effect, would allow the government to conduct surveillance to thwart terror attacks while also addressing the public's privacy concerns.
"I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk," Obama said in a statement.
But civil liberties groups said the president's proposals on data collection failed to answer key concerns.
The White House said the NSA would need a court order to access the data except in an "emergency situation" that it stopped short of defining.
In such circumstances, the court would be asked to approve requests "based on national security concerns" involving specific telephone numbers that had been linked to suspicious activity.
"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," Obama said.
Because the new plan would not be in place by a March 28 expiration date, the president said he would seek a 90-day reauthorisation of the existing programme from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which oversees government requests for warrants in national security investigations.
"I am confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised," he said.
Officials have defended the NSA's methods as necessary to thwart attacks on US and foreign soil, but the sheer scope of the NSA's domestic and international activities has shocked many observers.
A fact sheet released by the White House said that if the plan were implemented, "absent an emergency situation, the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns".
Amie Stepanovich at the digital rights group Access called Obama's plan "a significant step forward", but said it "fails to address many of the problems with US government surveillance policies and programs, such as the double standard for citizens and those outside of the United States".
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)