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Obama plans legislation to stop NSA’s mass collection of phone data (report)

Above: The seal of the National Security Agency

Image Credit: Cory Doctorow

U.S. president Barack Obama is preparing a legislative proposal that would overhaul the way the National Security Agency collects and stores data, according to a report in The New York Times.

Currently the NSA collects massive quantities of data about phone calls in and outside the U.S., and stores that data indefinitely for further analysis, according to reports leaked about the agency’s PRISM program. It can access that data after receiving approvals from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which is widely regarded as a rubber stamp, approving the vast majority of NSA requests it receives.

Under the proposed legislation, the NSA could no longer collect and store this data indiscriminately, and would have to receive individual authorization from the FISA court for every phone number it wants to investigate. The deciding judge would have to agree that those numbers are likely linked to terrorism.

The proposed legislation echoes a directive Obama issued to the NSA in January, ordering it to relinquish control of phone metadata and to come up with a plan for handling that data. If passed by Congress, the legislation would have the force of law, instead of executive authority.

However, in contrast to January’s proposal, the proposed legislation would not require anyone to store this phone data — neither the NSA nor phone companies would be allowed to collect and store data indefinitely, apparently.

In January, Obama also announced his intention to appoint a “privacy advocate” to the FISA court. And he ordered a change, effective immediately, that limits intelligence agencies from pursuing phone calls more than two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, as opposed to three.

The proposal appears to focus only on phone metadata, not the content of phone calls (which spy agencies and law enforcement can access via wiretaps), the content of Internet communications, or metadata about Internet communications.

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