Obama curbs NSA cellphone-tracking program

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama has scaled back the National Security Agency’s large-scale collection of data about who called whom via cellphones.

“I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk,” he said in a Thursday statement.

Cellphone companies will have to keep and store this data, and the NSA will be allowed to see the data when it gets approval from a judge, according to the statement.

“I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held,” Obama said.

Prior to Obama’s decision, the NSA collected and stored vast quantities of domestic cellphone data via the “Section 215 Bulk Metadata Program.” It was able to view the data without approval by judges.

The “metadata” shows who called whom via cellphones, not the contents of any cellphone conversations.

The NSA’s program was intended to help security officials rapidly discover the networks of collaborators and supporters behind suspected or arrested jihadis. It was created after 2001, when al-Qaida’s network of jihadis entered the United States and organized their murderous attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Under the new rules, once the NSA gets approval from the court, dubbed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, it can only follow a suspect’s calls up to “two hops.” That means when Suspect A calls Person B, the NSA will also be allowed to check to see who Person B calls, and who those people call.

The program was widely criticized as excessive by civil libertarians after it was exposed by a former contractor to the NSA.

Under Obama’s plan, the cellphone companies won’t have to store the data for any additional time than they do today, but will have ensure the NSA can easily use the data, officials told reporters March 27.

White House officials say they need a new law to clarify how the the cellphone companies need store the data in an electronic format that is quickly searchable by NSA experts.

The new rules do not effect the NSA’s ability to track cellphone conversations by non-U.S. residents outside the United States.

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