US announces plans to end NSA's bulk collection of phone data

Thursday 27 March 2014 20.45
The National Security Agency has been criticised for its broad collection of communications data
The National Security Agency has been criticised for its broad collection of communications data

The US administration has put forward its plan to end the bulk collection of Americans' telephone records, aiming to defuse a controversy over mass surveillance.

The plan was announced amid an outcry over the National Security Agency's mass surveillance capabilities, described in documents leaked by fugitive former contractor Edwards Snowden.

"I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk," President Barack Obama said in a statement, as he published a formal proposal to reform procedures for the NSA.

Mr Obama said his plan would require telephone companies to hold data for the same length of time they currently do, while allowing government agencies to access it with court approval.

He said his plan, which needs congressional approval, would still allow the government to conduct surveillance to thwart terrorist attacks but would make changes to address the public's privacy concerns.

The White House said the NSA would need a court order to access the data, except in "an emergency situation", which it did not define.

The court would be asked to approve requests based on specific telephone numbers "based on national security concerns", the White House said.

"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," Mr Obama said.

The president said that because the new plan would not be in place by a 28 March expiration, he will seek a 90-day reauthorisation of the existing programme with some modifications he ordered in January.

"I am confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised," Mr Obama said.

A trove of documents leaked by fugitive Mr Snowden sparked an outcry in the US and abroad about the vast capabilities of US intelligence programmes. 

Officials have defended the methods as necessary to thwart terror attacks, but the extent of the NSA's activities on home soil has divided opinion in the United States.

In Congress, a group of politicians published a bipartisan-backed bill this week to end bulk collection of telephone, email, and internet metadata. Other bills are pending.