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Obama announces curbs on phone data collection

Posted Jan 17, 2014 12:31 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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President Obama on Friday announced he is planning a “new approach” for the bulk collection and handling of phone records, part of a series of new privacy protections to be implemented after leaks by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency's surveillance program.

Obama said he planned to end the phone-data-collection program “as it currently exists” and will seek to move the information out of government hands, report the Washington Post and the New York Times. A presidential review panel had recommended the data be held by telecommunications firms or an independent third party and accessed only by judicial order, but telecoms have balked at the idea, the Times says. Obama said no decision has been made on what entity will hold the data.

Obama plans a two-step transition from the current program, according to the post coverage. Currently, the government pursues records of calls that are three steps removed from a terrorist organization; the government will now limit collection to calls that are two steps removed. And Obama said he is asking the U.S. Justice Department to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during the transition so that “the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.”

Obama is asking lawmakers to establish a panel of public advocates who can represent privacy interests before the FISA court. A senior official told the Times that the privacy advocates would only be tapped in “novel” cases.

Obama also said he would end eavesdropping on foreign leaders and governments who are close friends or allies unless there is “a compelling national security purpose.”

Obama did not accept a panel recommendation to require judicial approval before issuing national security letters, used to obtain business records from telecoms.

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