The National Security Agency (NSA) wants to extend the amount of time that it can hold on to people’s phone records.
In a court filing on Wednesday, the Justice Department said the spy agency needs to keep the metadata beyond its current five-year limit to deal with a handful of lawsuits challenging the legality of its controversial surveillance program.
Destroying the data after five years “could be inconsistent with the Government’s preservation obligations in connection with civil litigation pending against it,” the department said in a filing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is responsible for reauthorizing the NSA program.
Because of those lawsuits, “the United States must ensure that all potentially relevant evidence is retained,” the agency said. That includes the metadata about people’s phone calls, which includes the numbers they dial and the length and frequency of their calls, but not the content of the conversations.
The metadata collection program has been the most controversial aspect of the NSA's surveillance revealed in documents from former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Civil liberties proponents have claimed that the program is illegal and should be ended.
In its filing, the Obama administration said that phone records kept beyond five years would be preserved in a way “that precludes any access or use by NSA intelligence analysts for any purpose,” including searches, aside from the ongoing legal challenges.
The ACLU on Wednesday rejected the NSA’s attempt to keep the records for longer.
“This is just a distraction,” the group’s deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said in a statement. “We don’t have any objection to the government deleting these records. While they’re at it, they should delete the whole database.”
President Obama is currently weighing four separate proposals to reform the NSA's phone records collection program by transferring the phone data out of the NSA's hands.