Government spying on Internet and telephone communications would be allowed to proceed with new limits on the broad collection and storage of the data, under recommendations by a White House advisory panel.
The U.S. should be prohibited from collecting and storing billions of phone records, such as numbers dialed and call durations, and bring to a halt programs that intercept and store bulk data that contains personal information about individuals, the committee said in its report released today.
Instead of the National Security Agency collecting and storing phone metadata, those records should be held by telecommunications companies or a private third party, the panel said. The government would then need a court order to access them.
“Any program involving government collection or storage of such data must be narrowly tailored to serve an important government interest,” the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology said in its report.
The group’s recommendations represent the first time that the panel sanctioned by President Barack Obama’s administration has publicly called for restraints on NSA spy programs. The final report aims to alter spy programs in response to a domestic and international backlash over the extent of U.S. spying exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The administration will review the report, “including sorting through which recommendations we will implement, which might require further study, and which we will choose not to pursue,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier today.
Obama plans to announce his proposals for limiting NSA spying next month, based in part on the panel’s report. The president already has rejected one of the group’s recommendations: splitting the NSA from the Pentagon’s U.S. Cyber Command.
The panel, established by Obama in August, is made up of Richard Clarke, a former U.S. cybersecurity adviser; Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who once worked in the administration; and Peter Swire, who served on Obama’s National Economic Council.
The panel recommends legislation allowing Facebook Inc., Yahoo! Inc., Google Inc. and other Internet companies to publicly release “general information” about government orders compelling them to turn over data about their users, and how many users are affected.
The companies have been lobbying Obama and Congress to be able to do so, and their executives met with the president yesterday to press their case.
“If the government is working closely or secretly with specific providers, and if such providers cannot assure their users that their communications are safe and secure, people might well look elsewhere,” the report said. “In principle, the economic damage could be severe.”
The panel also recommends that the U.S. not do anything to undermine or weaken encryption standards, and establish international norms to prevent a splintering of the Internet.
The government should be allowed to use vulnerabilities in computer code when necessary -- commonly known as zero-day exploits, the panel said.
Requiring phone companies to retain bulk records for the government probably will be met with resistance.
“I expect our members would oppose the imposition of data retention obligations that would require them to maintain customer data for longer than necessary,” Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said before the final report was released. The Washington-based trade group represents AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc.
Ed Black, president and chief executive officer of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, said while the report is “a recognition that the system does need reform” it doesn’t go far enough in some areas.
The proposals are “well intentioned but realistically it winds up trying to make private companies the agents of government, quasi-governmental agents, and it really isn’t going to work,” Black said.
Obama should accept the recommendations and end the bulk-data collections, said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“NSA’s surveillance programs are un-American, unconstitutional, and need to be reined in,” he said in a statement.
The report is the second blow this week to the government’s collection of bulk data, as a federal judge ruled Dec. 17 that the NSA’s phone records collection program is probably illegal.
The report today said there should be new criteria for eavesdropping on foreign leaders, and the NSA’s electronic spying operations should be separated from the agency’s computer network defense operations.
“We are not in any way recommending the disarming of the intelligence community,” Morell told reporters today. “I do not believe as a 33-year intelligence officer that our recommendations will in any way undermine” the intelligence community or national security.