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With the Passage of NSA Reforms, Telecoms Say the Buck Has Been Passed to Them

The two-year fight to overhaul the National Security Agency ended this week with President Barack Obama’s signing of the USA Freedom Act.

Win McNamee
Win McNamee
Win McNamee

The two-year fight to overhaul the National Security Agency ended this week with President Barack Obama’s signing of the USA Freedom Act. But it will take months of tough negotiations with telecom companies for the White House to actually implement the required reforms, and privacy groups are still smarting over what they consider watered-down changes to how the NSA does business.

The bill requires telecom companies to store U.S. phone data instead of the NSA, which can access it with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court. Right now, telecom companies only store this information for 18 months. This presents an immediate problem -- and an unfunded mandate -- that the Obama administration and communications firms must work out during the six-month grace period permitted by the bill: The NSA wants data stored for five years.

Former federal prosecutor Robert Cattanach told FP he expects the White House and companies like AT&T to be able to come to terms on storage length. The more challenging problem is that cell phone providers don’t store all of the metadata on phone usage that the NSA does.

The two-year fight to overhaul the National Security Agency ended this week with President Barack Obama’s signing of the USA Freedom Act. But it will take months of tough negotiations with telecom companies for the White House to actually implement the required reforms, and privacy groups are still smarting over what they consider watered-down changes to how the NSA does business.

The bill requires telecom companies to store U.S. phone data instead of the NSA, which can access it with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court. Right now, telecom companies only store this information for 18 months. This presents an immediate problem — and an unfunded mandate — that the Obama administration and communications firms must work out during the six-month grace period permitted by the bill: The NSA wants data stored for five years.

Former federal prosecutor Robert Cattanach told FP he expects the White House and companies like AT&T to be able to come to terms on storage length. The more challenging problem is that cell phone providers don’t store all of the metadata on phone usage that the NSA does.

During the years-long debate over surveillance reform, cellular providers quietly pushed back at adding capacity simply because the NSA wants it. Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a group that represents cell-phone companies, said cell providers are opposed to adding any additional data collection on behalf of the NSA. It could cost $60 million alone for the phone companies to get existing data from the NSA.

“I don’t know if the telecoms are going to start aggregating and retaining info from wireless companies they don’t otherwise retain,” Cattanach said.

“Both the telecoms and the NSA, they can each make each others lives miserable.”

Meanwhile, privacy groups that have been pressing lawmakers for reform since Edward Snowden revealed NSA’s secrets to the world also walk away disappointed. Their main point of contention is that the bill failed to address Section 702 of the Patriot Act, which sweeps up data on non-U.S. citizens outside of the United States. Advocates say this provides a backdoor to collecting American data.

“It’s not a win, but we didn’t lose,” Daniel Schuman, policy director of the progressive group Demand Progress, said Thursday.

“It wasn’t an entire sellout to the intelligence community.”

Reauthorization for Section 702 expires in two years, meaning the debate over the NSA surveillance tools is far from over. Nadia Kayyali, an activist with the digital privacy advocates the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a group who withdrew their support for the USA Freedom Act because it didn’t go far enough to curb the NSA — said efforts are already underway to get lawmakers to kill the authority prior to its expiration.

 Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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