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Senators push for changes in NSA data collection

Grant Gross | Aug. 1, 2013
Lawmakers focus on adding transparency to the agency's phone records collection program.

Several U.S. senators will push for changes in the way the National Security Agency collects the telephone records of millions of U.S. residents, with lawmakers saying they will focus on making the NSA program more transparent to the public.

Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday they will introduce legislation targeting the NSA telephone records collection program.

Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said he will introduce a bill this week that requires the NSA and other agencies to make public the number of U.S. residents they have collected information on, and how many resident have had their information reviewed by federal agents. The bill would also allow companies to disclose the number of surveillance requests they get from government agencies, a change Google, Microsoft and other companies have asked for.

"There is a critical problem at the center of this debate and that's the lack of transparency around these programs," Franken said at a committee hearing on NSA surveillance programs. The secrecy around the NSA surveillance programs is "bad for privacy and bad for democracy," he added.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he will push for the data collection process at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to include lawyers serving as public advocates who can oppose surveillance requests from the NSA and other agencies. Including opposing lawyers would help create public trust in the program, he said.

But Stewart Baker, a partner at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm and a former NSA general counsel, questioned if adding new public advocates to the surveillance request process would calm public fears about the NSA programs, revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

With the public advocate lawyers paid by the U.S. government, some critics may still argue the process is "really just a sham," Baker said.

Even Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and vocal supporter of NSA surveillance programs, called for the agency to make its efforts more transparent. The agency should reduce the number of years it keeps phone records from five to two or three and should release more information about the number of times a company has to give up records, she said.

Committee members didn't call for the NSA to abolish the surveillance programs, however. Civil liberties groups, however, called for wider changes to the programs, beyond transparency and new public advocates in the court process.

"It's become clear that the NSA is engaged in far-reaching, intrusive and unlawful surveillance of Americans' phone calls and electronic communications," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a lawsuit against the NSA. An overhaul of the program and the law behind it is needed, he said.

 

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