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 CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate confirms Haspel to head CIA Democrats urge colleagues to oppose prison reform bill Trump-backed prison reforms face major obstacles in Senate MORE (R-Ark.) and Angus KingAngus Stanley KingFor .2 billion, taxpayers should get more than Congress’s trial balloons Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Trump hits federally funded clinics with new abortion restrictions Dem senators ask drug companies to list prices in ads 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.