Obama administration will make tiny, nearly meaningless changes to illegal bulk phone spying

The Obama administration will unveil a plan to sunset the bulk collection of US telephone data by American spies. Instead, it will plunder data that the carriers are required to retain for 18 months (America's spies currently warehouse phone data for five years) on the strength of warrants issued by its secret, rubberstamp Foreign Intelligence "court." This won't take place for at least 90 days, and for those 90 days, the administration expects the "court" to renew the spies' power to harvest bulk phone data as it has until now (despite that fact that Obama's appointed independent commission concluded that this program is illegal). Spies will only be able to explore phone data within two "hops" of their persons of interest, rather than the "three hop" rule they claim they've followed until now. Civil liberties groups are very slightly cheered by all this news.

The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.

They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.

The N.S.A. now retains the phone data for five years. But the administration considered and rejected imposing a mandate on phone companies that they hold on to their customers’ calling records for a period longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require — a burden that the companies had resisted shouldering and that was seen as a major obstacle to keeping the data in their hands. A senior administration official said that intelligence agencies had concluded that the operational impact of that change would be small because older data is less important.

Obama to Call for End to N.S.A.’s Bulk Data Collection [Charlie Savage/NYT]