WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee members Tuesday raised concerns with proposals by a presidential commission that the National Security Agency no longer collect millions of phone records and other electronic information, relying instead on private companies to store the bulk records for use by the government as needed.
Members of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, formed in response to growing concerns over the reach of government collection of bulk metadata, testified before the Senate committee about the 46 recommendations for NSA and government data collection in their report, presented to President Barack Obama Dec. 13.
The mass metadata collection legalized in section 215 of the Patriot Act “is not uniquely valuable enough to justify a massive intrusion into privacy,” necessitating “extra safeguards” for the collection program, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy said.
One of the 46 policy recommendations proposes ending the NSA’s collecting of phone records, transferring the responsibility of bulk metadata collection to the private sector. But phone companies reportedly would rather leave the data storage in the hands of the government.
Cellular phone industry trade group CTIA – The Wireless Association, did not respond to requests for comment on the proposal, but has been reported to believe the proposal would force phone companies to hold on to customer data for too long at extra cost.
“They obviously would rather not,” said panel member Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago. “The question is how to avoid potential (government) abuse.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, raised concerns about the security of private institutions’ metadata collections, highlighting recent data breaches in companies like Target and Neiman Marcus.
Former CIA Director Michael Morell, who also served on the presidential panel, said the bulk data collection is essential to national security – the only question is how best to store it.
“Few of us have ever had fires in their homes, but still all of us have homeowners insurance,” Morell said.
Stone said the review group stood by the belief that government posed a greater threat to abuse of information than private industry.
“The importance of these issues can’t be overstated,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “We’ve seen this movie before. We know how it ends. We know that eventually, if that much information remains in the hands of the government for long enough, it will be abused.”