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NSA to Halt Telephone Data Program If Congress Doesn't Act

By Dow Jones Business News, March 25, 2015, 10:25:00 AM EDT

The National Security Agency will cease collecting bulk telephone metadata if Congress doesn't reauthorize or replace parts of a federal law that expires at the end of May, a White House spokesman said Wednesday.

President Barack Obama has called for replacing the existing program, first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, with a more narrowly targeted system that he says would better safeguard privacy but allow law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to collect certain data they believe necessary for national security.

The provision that would expire is Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

"Allowing Section 215 to sunset would result in the loss, going forward, of a critical national security tool that is used in a variety of additional contexts that don't involve the collection of bulk data," White House spokesman Ned Price said. "That is why we have underscored the imperative of congressional action in the coming weeks, and we welcome the opportunity to work with lawmakers on such legislation."

There had been speculation that the White House might nevertheless continue the bulk telephone data collection even if the law were allowed to sunset.

The White House's position was first reported by Reuters.

The program has allowed the NSA to collect telephone data for millions of Americans, primarily records of who calls whom, and the length of each call.

Congress is split over whether to allow the program to continue. Many Republicans want the program reauthorized, as they say it helps intelligence agencies detect threats against the U.S. But many Democrats and a number of Republicans say it raises constitutional and privacy concerns, particularly as data is collected for people who haven't been accused of wrongdoing.

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) told reporters Tuesday he supported the extension of the program, and complained that there was a misunderstanding about how the program worked and how it prevented terror attacks.

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NSA to Halt Telephone Data Program If Congress Doesn't Act

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Tech firms and privacy groups press for curbs on NSA surveillance powers

The nations top technology firms and a coalition of privacy groups are urging Congress to place curbs on government surveillance in the face of a fast-approaching deadline for legislative action.

A set of key Patriot Act surveillance authorities expire on June 1, but the effective date is May 21 the last day before Congress breaks for a Memorial Day recess.

In a letter to be sent Wednesday to the Obama administration and senior lawmakers, the coalition vowed to oppose any legislation that, among other things, does not ban the bulk collection of Americans phone records and other data.

The status quo is untenable and ... it is urgent that Congress move forward with reform, said the letter, whose signatories include the Reform Government Surveillance industry coalition. Members of the group include Apple, Google, Microsoft and Twitter.

We know that there are some in Congress who think that they can get away with reauthorizing the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act without any reforms at all, said Kevin Bankston, policy director of New America Foundations Open Technology Institute, a privacy group that organized the effort. This letter draws a line in the sand that makes clear that the privacy community and the Internet industry do not intend to let that happen without a fight.

At issue is the bulk collection of Americans data by intelligence agencies such as the National Security Agency. The NSAs daily gathering of millions of records logging phone call times, lengths and other metadata stirred controversy when it was revealed in June 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The records are placed in a database that can, with a judges permission, be searched for links to foreign terrorists. They do not include the content of conversations.

That program, placed under federal surveillance court oversight in 2006, was authorized by the court in secret under Section 215 of the Patriot Act one of the expiring provisions.

The public outcry that ensued after the program was disclosed forced President Obama in January 2014 to call for an end to the NSAs storage of the data. He also appealed to Congress to find a way to preserve the agencys access to the data for counterterrorism information.

But in recent months, the political opposition to limiting surveillance has gained strength in part because of growing concerns over the threat of terrorism. Those concerns were exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State and the attacks that left 17 people dead in and around Paris in January.

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Tech firms and privacy groups press for curbs on NSA surveillance powers

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NSA authorisation to collect bulk phone data extended to June 1

John Ribeiro | March 3, 2015

The FISC court granted the extension pending new legislation blocking bulk collection.

A U.S. secret court has extended until June 1 the controversial bulk collection of private phone records of Americans by the National Security Agency.

The government said it had asked for reauthorization of the program as reform legislation, called the USA Freedom Act, was stalled in Congress. The bill would require telecommunications companies rather than the NSA to hold the bulk data, besides placing restrictions on the search terms used to retrieve the records.

An added urgency for Congress to act comes from the upcoming expiry on June 1 of the relevant part of the Patriot Act that provides the legal framework for the bulk data collections. Under a so-called "sunset" clause, the provision will lapse unless it is reauthorized in some form or the other by legislation.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which relates to business records, was used by the government to vacuum telephone metadata from customers of Verizon, according to revelations in 2013 by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. The section comes bundled with "gag orders" that prohibit service providers from making such information demands public.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had previously extended in December the authorization for the program by 90 days after the USA Freedom Act, backed by the administration of President Barack Obama, failed to pass in the Senate. A version of the bill had passed the House of Representatives.

The government has now sought renewal of the current program up to June 1 in order to align its expiry date with the sunset on the same day of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, according to a joint statement by the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday.

In March last year, as part of his reform program for the NSA, Obama had proposed that the data should remain with the telephone companies, and government would have access to that data only through individual court orders. The president, however, said there was need for new legislation to put these changes into effect.

With Section 215 and two other key rules set to lapse on June 1, Congress "has a limited window" before the sunset to enact new legislation "that would implement the President's proposed path forward for the telephony metadata program, while preserving key intelligence authorities," according to a statement by the White House press secretary.

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NSA authorisation to collect bulk phone data extended to June 1

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NSA spying law set to expire

The current law, due to expire on June 1, allows the NSA to collect bulk data on numbers called and the time and length of calls, but not their content.

Efforts by Congress to extend the law so far have proved fruitless, and Congressional aides said that little work on the issue was being done on Capitol Hill.

Read More Want to be invisible online? There's an app for that

There are deeply divergent views among the Republicans who control Congress. Some object to bulk data collection as violating individual freedoms, while others consider it a vital tool for preventing terrorist attacks against America.

Ned Price, a national security council spokesman, told Reuters the administration had decided to stop bulk collection of domestic telephone call metadata unless Congress explicitly re-authorizes it.

Some legal experts have suggested that even if Congress does not extend the law the administration might be able to convince the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize collection under other legal authorities.

But Price made clear the administration now has no intention of doing so, and that the future of metadata collection after June 1 was up to Congress.

Read MoreiPhone encryption 'petrified' NSA: Greenwald

Price said the administration was encouraging Congress to enact legislation in the coming weeks that would allow the collection to continue.

But Price said: "If Section 215 (of the law which covers the collection) sunsets, we will not continue the bulk telephony metadata program."

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NSA spying law set to expire

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Beyond PRISM: "Plenty" more domestic spy programs to reveal

Summary:Although Edward Snowden revealed many of the NSA's clandestine activities, Ron Wyden remains one of the only hopes of US intelligence reform from within Congress.

Sen. Ron Wyden talks in April 2011 of secretly-interpreted laws (Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

A number of US surveillance programs that target Americans have yet to be revealed, a Democratic senator has warned.

In an interview with BuzzFeed earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said there are "plenty" of domestically-focused surveillance programs that have not yet been revealed by the Snowden leaks. He declined to discuss the subject further, saying that the programs are still classified.

Wyden has spent years quietly attacking the US intelligence community from his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, only to face resistance from not just the intelligence agencies, but also his colleagues and even the president. Although Edward Snowden revealed a considerable portion of the NSA's clandestine activities, Wyden remains one of the only hopes -- even if he is a lone wolf -- of US intelligence reform from within Congress.

The senator's position on the committee gives him access to some of the government's biggest secrets -- who is spying on whom, specific threats to the US homeland, and the details of ongoing surveillance operations and programs. These privileged few committee members are also cursed. They are barred from telling anyone about most of their work, including their fellow lawmakers -- let alone their own staff, most of which do not have "top secret" security clearance.

That poses a problem for members of Congress whose job it is to create new laws based on the information they have -- including privileged information.

"There are other things that need to be disclosed or debated among those who vote on and write the legislation," said Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky-based congressman, in a phone interview earlier this year.

Massie remains concerned about further infractions by the government. Although a great deal has been disclosed about the NSA's activities -- including the PRISM surveillance system and the bulk phone records collection programs -- he said he was acutely aware that Edward Snowden "hasn't disclosed everything."

Massie, who was elected in part thanks to his pro-privacy stance and views on government reform, said he wasn't surprised by the disclosures. He described the news as a "disappointing confirmation" of things he suspected.

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Beyond PRISM: "Plenty" more domestic spy programs to reveal

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