Telephone companies in the US are quietly balking at the idea of changing how they collect and store telephone records to help the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs. They are worried about their exposure to lawsuits and the price tag if the US government asks them to hold information about customers for longer than they already do.
US President Barack Obama is expected to announce on Friday what changes he is willing to make to satisfy privacy, legal and civil liberties concerns over the NSA’s surveillance practices. One of the most important questions is whether the government will continue to collect millions of Americans’ phone records every day so that the government can identify anyone it believes might be communicating with known terrorists.
Obama’s hand-picked review committee has recommended ending the telephone-records program as it exists. It suggested shifting the storage of the records from the NSA to telephone companies or an unspecified third party and it recommended new legal requirements before the US government could search anyone’s records.
The telephone companies do not want the job. Executives and their lawyers have complained about the plan in confidential meetings with US administration officials and key congressional intelligence and other committees, according to interviews. Two telephone executives familiar with the discussions said the cellular industry told the US government that it prefers that the NSA keep control over the surveillance program and would only accept changes if they were legally required to.
The executives spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to disclose the private discussions. There have been public complaints as well.
“Our members would oppose the imposition of data retention obligations that would require them to maintain customer data for longer than necessary,” said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for the Wireless Association, the trade group for the mobile phone industry.
Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies was expected to discuss the dilemma over the telephone records program yesterday at a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Executives and industry lawyers said telephone companies would reluctantly agree to become the stewards of the telephone records only if current laws were changed relieving them of legal responsibilities and paying their costs. The industry is also wary of NSA insistence that the records would need to be standardized and probably held for longer periods than most firms now keep them.
Liability is a key concern for phone companies, which could be sued if hackers or others were able to gain unauthorized access to the records.