Privacy board head: End data collection program

The head of a federal privacy board is reiterating his call to end the government’s bulk collection and storage of Americans’ phone records. 

David Medine, the chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, called for either President Obama or Congress to shut down the National Security Agency program. Obama has deferred to Congress to make the change. 

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“Why continue the 215 program when it lacks a valid legal foundation, raises serious and potentially constitutional threats to privacy and civil liberties, and has proven to be ineffective?” he asked in an op-ed written for Lawfare

Last year, the privacy board recommended ending the collection, and instead creating a system where it could get the records from phone companies on a case-by-case basis. 

Medine said lawmakers should not be dissuaded by a report from the National Research Council in January that found new software could not fully replace the value of the government’s collection of the bulk of call records — including numbers, durations and call times, but not the content.  

The NRC report was not tasked with evaluating other alternatives. He said there is likely a better alternative that could also protect people’s civil liberties. 

“Given our country’s tremendous technological capabilities and ingenuity, it would not seem an insurmountable challenge to develop a system that would permit the government to directly query a handful of telephone companies’ databases using specific search terms,” he said. 

The courts renew the current program every 90 days. Advocates have called on the administration end it by simply declining to have it renewed. While Obama has endorsed ending the program, he has deferred to Congress as recently as this week. 

A bill to reform the NSA program failed to advance in the Senate last Congress. Advocates are hopeful that a deadline to reauthorize the Patriot Act in June will give them leverage to push through a change. 

“While he has the authority to terminate the 215 program on his own, he asked Congress to pass legislation,” Medine said.