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NSA Spying Row in Congress Ushers in Debate Over Big Data

NSA Spying Row in Congress Ushers in Debate on Managing Big Data
Protesters rally against the National Security Agency's recently detailed surveillance programs, June 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The clash in Congress over limiting U.S. surveillance powers is spurring a broader public debate over managing the billions of e-mails, telephone calls and texts generated globally every day.

Lawmaker efforts yesterday to curb the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone records from companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. marked a step in that larger discussion over the gathering, use and storage of vast amounts of data, say current and former U.S. officials, company representatives and privacy advocates.

“Big data, in all of its dimensions, is something that we have to come to grips with,” said Michael Hayden, a former NSA and Central Intelligence Agency director.

“This is a debate that was necessary and inevitable,” Hayden, a principal at the Chertoff Group, a Washington-based security consulting firm, said by telephone.

The ability of government agencies and businesses to obtain large sets of data on the activities and habits of Americans raises important questions for policy makers, ranging from how to deal with unwanted marketing e-mail to potential violations of constitutional rights, said Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.

Vast Data

“When you can gather enormous amount of information all at once and then store it, it creates a new set of capabilities and that creates a potential new intrusion,” Whitehouse said yesterday in a speech at a Microsoft Corp. event in Washington, D.C. “It’s going to be a continuing issue and a big one.”

By some estimates, 114 billion e-mails and 24 billion text messages are sent globally each day, as well as more than 12 billion phone calls made, according to Trey Hodgkins, a senior vice president for TechAmerica, a Washington-based trade group whose members include Verizon, AT&T Inc. and CenturyLink Inc.

Decisions about how to manage data also will affect telecommunications and Internet companies, especially if they are compelled by the government to retain data, Hodgkins said by telephone.

“You’re talking about potentially extremely huge data sets,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to think that we can keep that kind of volume and store it in a long-term way.”

Snowden Fallout

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday rejected by a 205-217 vote an amendment to the annual Defense Department spending bill that would have prevented the NSA from collecting telephone records in bulk.

Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, proposed the amendment in response to agency programs exposed by Edward Snowden, a former security contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., who faces U.S. espionage charges. In addition to the Verizon data, Snowden revealed the NSA operated a program called Prism that targeted Internet data from Apple Inc., Google Inc. and other companies.

Limiting the agency’s ability to store telephone records would probably mean service providers would have to retain the data instead, Harvey Rishikof, who teaches law at Drexel University in Philadelphia said by telephone.

Those companies could be subjected to new litigation because consumers, businesses or organizations would know they are retaining the information, Rishikof said. There also could be confusion about whether the companies or government would be required to search the data under court orders, he said.

National Debate

“Someone has to hold the data,” Rishikof said. “There may be a problem as we sort this out.”

Edward McFadden, a spokesman for New York-based Verizon, declined to comment.

Both Google, based in Mountain View, California, and Cupertino, California-based Apple have said they comply with legal requests to give the government data, and have asked President Barack Obama and congressional leaders for permission to publish the number and types of requests they receive.

A rare coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers joined forces backing the Amash amendment, showing that views on the issue don’t follow traditional party lines.

“The fact that the House leadership allowed debate and vote on this amendment reflects the deep concern in the Congress about both the secrecy and the breadth of these authorities,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties and privacy watchdog group in Washington.

Secret Expansion

The administrations of President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, expanded government spying powers with the help of the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court beyond what Congress intended, Martin said.

Congress should require agencies to use the powers as originally intended, she said. Once that happens, lawmakers could debate whether to expand authorized actions, she said.

In one sense, Snowden is getting what he wanted by sparking a debate about data collection and use, said Hayden, the former NSA and CIA chief.

“Now that this issue has been pushed out into the public domain, there’s only one choice for the government,” Hayden said. “We need to develop a national consensus because the use of big data can be really great but there’s also a concern that big data in and of itself is scary and can be misused.”

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