The National Security Agency isn’t about to stop collecting billions of phone records in bulk, but Director Keith Alexander has offered does think he has a new way to go about retaining that data.
Alexander told a cyber-security forum this week that the intelligence gathered by way of the government’s court-approved program, which collects phone metadata in bulk, might be better off stored in a neutral location, and not one so strictly tied to his top-secret agency.
“I believe it is in our nation’s best interest to put all this phone data into a repository where you, the American people, know what we are doing with it,” Alexander said at Tuesday’s event, hosted by Politico.
“I’m open for greater transparency. I’m open for where we put the data,” he said.
As TechDirt’s Tim Cushing was quick to point out, however: “That would be all well and good, except for the fact that the data itself comes from ‘neutral’ sites, or at least sites that were neutral before they were approached by the government.”
Indeed, the millions of phone records compiled daily from major telecommunication providers have — as far as we’ve been told, at least — never originated out of NSA facilities. Rather, the government has relied on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court-authorized directives renewed regularly to force those companies to cough up raw data about who called whom and when after its recorded by their own systems.
At Tuesday’s event, Alexander once again defended the program, insisting it was key to thwarting potential terror attacks in the US and abroad.
“If we don’t know there is a threat, we can’t stop it,” he said.
Critics of the NSA’s operations have questioned the capabilities of the bulk data collection program, however, arguing largely that the court orders are too broad and put millions of innocent Americans onto the government’s radar without them even being suspected of any criminal activity.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), a co-author of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, recently said he was working on a bill that would reform the government’s surveillance tactics and “put their metadata program out of business."
Citing the unauthorized disclosure of national security documents earlier this year by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and the discussions they spawned, Sensenbrenner told the Guardian newspaper that the public dialogue and new developments about the NSA’s other operations had opened the door for reform.
"Opinions have hardened with the revelations over the summer, particularly the inspector general's report that there were thousands of violations of regulations, and the disclosure that NSA employees were spying on their spouses or significant others, which was very chilling," he said.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington last month, Alexander answered questions from Congress about the NSA’s programs and at the time suggested that the data being collected should be stored somewhere, though he stopped short of suggesting any kind of third-party repository.
At the same time, though, Alexander admitted that there was no “upper limit” with regard to how much phone data the government wants to collect, and said: “I believe that it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox.”
Snowden, the former contractor at Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked top-secret NSA files to the Guardian starting earlier this year, including one document released in early June that revealed the NSA’s reliance on Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect that information, unbeknownst to most Americans until now.