White House Wants Immunity For Phone Companies That Surrender Customer Data

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The White House is asking lawmakers drafting National Security Agency reform bills in Congress to give telecommunications companies immunity when they provide customer data to the government.

A four-page document was privately sent to congressional legislators weeks ago outlining items the White House would like to see included in surveillance reforms, and specifically petitioned lawmakers to include protection for “any person who complies in good faith with an order to produce records” against any future potential legal liability.

American telecommunications providers were similarly granted retroactive legal immunity for cooperating with the Bush administration’s infamous warrantless wiretapping programs in the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama also supported. The new proposals requested by the Obama administration would extend that protection to ongoing phone records and data court orders.

There have been multiple legislative proposals aimed at curbing bulk NSA surveillance practices since the disclosures of highly classified invasive programs by former contractor Edward Snowden last year. One of the items almost all of those bills — including the White House’s — share is taking the bulk storage of private citizens data out of NSA’s hands and turning it over to a third-party, or mandating telecommunications and internet service providers store it themselves.

The recent White House proposals are in line with current measures designed to protect companies when they respond to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court subpoenas, and not surprising  according to an unnamed senior official cited in a Guardian report.

“This would refer to any new orders issued by the court under the new regime we are proposing. This is similar to the way the rest of FISA already operates, and FISA already contains virtually identical language for its other provisions, including Section 215,” the official said referencing the PATRIOT Act provision used to justify bulk surveillance.

A bill recently proposed by the House Intelligence Committee grants such immunity to telecommunications providers, but the bill has stalled as a result of another provision allowing the government to demand phone data without a judge’s approval.

According to a congressional aide telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon are expected to “fight hard” for the provision.

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