Verizon Opposes Mandate on Holding NSA Phone Records

Verizon Communications Inc. said U.S. phone companies shouldn’t be required to change the format or amount of time they hold phone records under President Barack Obama’s plan to alter a spy program.

Obama is seeking legislation that would direct Verizon, AT&T Inc. and other carriers to search their records and provide results in a timely and technologically compatible format to the government. The National Security Agency currently collects and holds the records, which include numbers dialed and call durations without content of conversations.

Companies should not be required to store data for longer than they already do or in different formats, Randal Milch, New York-based Verizon’s general counsel and executive vice president for public policy, said in a statement today.

“If Verizon receives a valid request for business records, we will respond in a timely way, but companies should not be required to create, analyze or retain records for reasons other than business purposes,” he said. Verizon supports ending the NSA’s bulk data-collection program and “it is critical to get the details of this important effort right,” he said.

The move to end the NSA’s bulk-phone records collection program is one the most tangible responses to a domestic and international backlash over the extent of U.S. spy programs exposed since June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. It potentially pits the Obama administration against some lawmakers and U.S. carriers over how best to reshape the program.

Compelling Carriers

“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 today as he traveled in Europe, where the NSA surveillance has been a source of tension between the U.S. and Germany. “Legislation will be needed to permit the government to obtain this information with the speed and in the manner that will be required to make this approach workable.”

The White House said today that U.S. carriers “would be compelled by court order to provide technical assistance to ensure that the records can be queried and that results are transmitted to the government in a usable format and in a timely manner.”

The details under which carriers will be compelled to respond to government orders will be worked out with lawmakers, an administration official told reporters on a conference call today.

The current phone-records order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court expires March 28. The administration will seek to renew the order until Congress passes legislation, the White House.

Court Approval

Obama will seek legislation requiring prior court approval for government requests that U.S. carriers search phone records for terrorist connections -- putting him at odds with some House lawmakers.

Phone numbers the government wants to search against the databases of U.S. carriers would have to first be approved by the secret FISC panel under Obama’s plan, unless there is an emergency circumstance, according to a White House announcement.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Obama’s plan, once codified into legislation, will “ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence requirements while protecting civil liberties and privacy and being as transparent as possible.”

Snowden, who’s facing U.S. espionage charges and living in Russia under temporary asylum, exposed a classified order from the secret court under which the NSA compels carriers to turn over phone records on billions of users globally.

Battle Lines

Representatives Mike Rogers of Michigan, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the panel, introduced a bill March 25 that wouldn’t require the government to get prior court approval before directing the carriers to search their records.

Rogers told reporters at a press conference that requiring prior court approval before directing a carrier to search records is “nuts” and would create a new legal standard

“I think it’s wrong to have a better standard for a terrorist living overseas than it is a U.S. citizen who may be engaged in criminal activity in the United States,” he said.

Obama’s plan is progress yet not enough because he could end the program on his own and not shift the responsibility to Congress, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The Washington-based group challenged the program before the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

“I don’t think he needs to wait on Congress to end the telephone collection program,” Rotenberg said in a phone interview today. “The buck stops with the president.”

Fine Print

The legislation sought by the administration closely tracks changes that Obama announced in January. For example, searches of call records only would reach two “hops,” meaning the original number and the numbers called, according to the White House.

The administration will seek authority to be able to query records with a court-approved number for some length of time, while carriers would be compelled to produce continuous results of queries into the future, according to the White House plan. The details need to be worked out with Congress, the administration official said.

Carriers would be compensated for doing searches and wouldn’t have to retain records for any longer than they currently do, the official said.

The Center for Democracy and Technology urged Congress to take a further step by also limiting collection of other data besides phone records, said Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Washington-based privacy group, said.

“We hope the legislation the administration supports in Congress will also prohibit bulk collection of other types of data,” he said, citing e-mail and other Internet data, phone location and financial records.

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