What's next for NSA's collection of phone records?

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President Barack Obama announced major changes to the NSA's phone record surveillance program Friday -- the one first revealed last summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, kicking off months of controversy. Here is what will happen next.

* The NSA won't get to decide when it pulls information from the phone records database.

Until now, intelligence analysts have been able to "query" the database so long as they've determined that a given phone number is subject to "reasonable, articulable suspicion." Critics have said that gives the NSA too much power to snoop on people. So Mr. Obama is going to require that whenever an analyst wants to query the database, permission must first be sought from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance [Act] Court. The FISA court has not previously been in the position of approving individual requests.

* When the NSA does query the database, the agency can't go as far.

Given a certain phone number, the NSA is now allowed to look at any phone number that is connected to the first, any number that is connected to that number and any number that is connected to that number. It's what people in the industry call the "three hops" rule, for the three degrees of separation from the original number. Effective immediately, however, analysts will now be limited to making just two hops. It limits the range of people who will potentially fall under the NSA's gaze.

* The phone records database may be put in the hands of a third party.

This is a longer-term change that won't take effect immediately. Obama advisers have 60 days from Friday to recommend how to move the database away from government control. A cynic might worry that the database simply gets handed to another government agency. But officials Friday seemed to indicate otherwise. "The bottom line is, we are ending the program as it currently exists," a senior administration official said. "The government will no longer hold this telephony metadata."

* Mr. Obama will ask Congress to convene a panel of public advocates to represent consumers before the FISA court.

The members of this panel will become involved when the FISA court encounters a question or types of data it hasn't dealt with before.

* What don't these overhauls cover?

These overhauls are narrowly targeted at the NSA's phone metadata program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. They don't cover other programs the government carries out under Section 215, such as the reported scraping of financial information by the CIA. They don't address the NSA's counter-encryption activities or any geolocation information the NSA may have or may be collecting. They also don't address other programs such as those conducted under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which is the authority under which PRISM operates. PRISM collects stored Internet communications based on demands the government makes to Internet firms such as Google Inc. and Apple Inc.

Some of the overhauls, both on the telephony metadata surveillance and others that the president announced Friday, require an act of Congress. And given the Senate's general support for the NSA throughout the controversy, it's unclear how much traction these proposals will get. Much of the spying that happens internationally will also remain untouched.

Additional overhauls aside from those affecting Section 215 include: Deciding not to spy on "dozens" of foreign heads of state or heads of government. Some protections applied to U.S. citizens abroad will also now be applied to foreign nationals. And companies will be able to make more disclosures about government data requests, including on National Security Letters, which will no longer be secret "indefinitely."


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