• AT&T concerned US may force company to retain data
• Tech firms hail ‘positive progress’ on privacy protections
by Dominic Rushe in New York
US telecoms giants expressed concern Friday about president Barack Obama’s reform of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American citizens’ phone records.
In a widely anticipated speech Obama said the government should no longer hold databases of every call record made in the United States, citing the “potential for abuse”. But Obama made clear the intelligence agencies should still be able to access call records information and gave no details of how that information will be stored.
Privately, telecoms executives have expressed concern that they will be forced to retain customers’ metadata – information about call duration, recipients and location. Speaking anonymously, one executive said the firms were concerned about how long they would have to keep data, which government agencies would have access to it and what protections they would have should there be legal challenges to their retention or distribution of the information.
In a statement, the CTIA, the wireless industry trade body, said it welcomed “the president’s efforts to start a dialog to address these important issues, and we look forward to working with the administration, Congress and key stakeholders as they seek to develop policies that strike the appropriate balance between America’s national security interests and the civil liberties of American citizens.
“CTIA continues to believe that this balance can be achieved without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.”
AT&T, a longtime partner of the NSA, said in a statement: “The debate about government surveillance programs and striking the right balance between protecting personal privacy and providing national security is a healthy one. We will review the proposal and look forward to working with Congress and the administration.”
The telco comments came as major tech companies, who have been struggling to reassure consumers that their data is secure from NSA surveillance, released a joint statement welcoming the reforms.
The Silicon Valley giants, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL, said the proposals represented “positive progress on key issues including transparency from the government and in what companies will be allowed to disclose, extending privacy protections to non-US citizens, and Fisa court reform.”
But the statement added: “Crucial details remain to be addressed on these issues, and additional steps are needed on other important issues, so we’ll continue to work with the administration and Congress to keep the momentum going and advocate for reforms consistent with the principles we outlined in December.”
Other tech firm and digital rights groups also expressed concerns about the reforms. In a blogpost, Alex Fowler, head of privacy and public policy for Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, said Obama’s reforms fell short.
“Overall, the strategy seems to be to leave current intelligence processes largely intact and improve oversight to a degree. We’d hoped for, and the internet deserves, more. Without a meaningful change of course, the internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity,” he wrote.
He said the administration had missed the opportunity to set out the priorities of the next NSA director. “If a culture of unlimited data gathering above all else persists, legal reforms and improved technological protections will be watered down over time and will never be enough to restore trust to the internet,” he wrote.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) had been looking for 12 major reforms from Obama and said he had achieved 3 1/2. Among the EFF’s major concerns the digital rights group noted Obama had made no statements about the government’s attempts to undermine encryption protection online or to protect whistleblowers,
Activism director Rainey Reitman said: “We were heartened to hear that he recognised the serious public concern over NSA surveillance abuses and that the privacy rights of people overseas are important but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”
Rainey said she welcomed greater transparency at the Fisa court and rules to take some of the secrecy away from national security letters but added that Obama had left major issues unanswered.
She said his proposals over metadata appeared problematic. “There are many questions about what that program transforms into. Will the telecoms companies be forced to hold the data? That raises potentially serious privacy concerns. And that’s just the telecoms data. It doesn’t address the sweeping up of communications from people around the world.”
“The devil will be in the details,” she said.
Anthony Romero, executive directive of the ACLU, echoed these concerns, describing Obama’s decision not to end bulk collection and storage as “highly troubling”.
He said: “The president outlined a process to study the issue further and appears open to alternatives. But the president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the constitution. The president’s own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety.”