Senate bill adds new fuel to NSA debate

A pair of Senate lawmakers is reopening a debate over the collection of Americans’ phone records, in another instance of new scrutiny on recently enacted surveillance reform.

Sens. Tom CottonTom CottonCotton: I hope we go back to health care next year Sunday shows preview: GOP gears up for Senate tax reform push A simple way to make America even greater is fixing our patent system MORE (R-Ark.) and Angus KingAngus Stanley KingFeinstein seeks contact with FBI informant in Russia nuclear bribery case Overnight Finance: Trump calls for ObamaCare mandate repeal, cuts to top tax rate | Trump to visit Capitol Hill in tax reform push | CBO can't do full score before vote | Bipartisan Senate bill would ease Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Regulation: Bipartisan Senate bill would curb Dodd-Frank rules | Opioid testing rule for transport workers finalized | Google faces state antitrust probe | Dems want investigation into FCC chief MORE (I-Maine) on Thursday introduced a bill requiring telephone companies to notify the government if they plan on altering their policies for storing consumers’ phone data.

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The effort follows Sunday’s expiration of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial bulk collection of millions of people’s records, and comes as a sign that national security hawks are growing more vocal in the wake of last month’s terror attack in Paris and this week’s violence in San Bernardino, Calif.

On Sunday, the NSA program collecting people’s phone metadata — which detail the numbers involved in a call and when it occurred, but not the actual content of the conversation — ended. Now, the NSA will need to ask private companies for a narrow set of records about particular terror targets after obtaining a court order. 

But critics of the NSA reform have worried that there is no legal requirement for those phone companies to retain the information for any period of time. As such, any company could singlehandedly undermine the system — and U.S. national security — by deciding to immediately delete some of the information, they warn.

The new bill from King and Cotton would force companies to give the Justice Department at least 180 days notice if they plan to retain the call records for less than 18 months. The bill is called the Private Sector Call Record Retention Act.

“Our legislation would simply require that U.S. officials are provided with adequate warning if a company decides it no longer will hold these vital records, allowing time to ensure that we don’t lose a potentially valuable tool in the battle against terrorism,” King said in a statement.

The legislation is likely to meet stiff opposition from civil libertarians, who view any demands on phone companies as a de facto mandate for them to keep the records.

Federal intelligence officials have maintained they don’t need any such mandate, privacy advocates point out. Placing extra burdens on the companies further empowers government spying, opponents claim.

Thursday’s bill is at least the third effort by Cotton to return to the fight over NSA reform, following the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

In previous days he has attempted to stall or preemptively block changes to the NSA’s phone records program and other intelligence programs that security officials say are important to protect the country against terrorists.