After nine months of revelations about the extent of US government surveillance, the Obama administration is floating a plan that will curtail mass snooping by its intelligence agencies and reform the way individuals are investigated.
"I said several months ago that I was assigning our intelligence community to bring me new options with respect to the telephone database program," President Obama told a news conference in The Netherlands on Tuesday.
"They have presented me now with an option I think is workable. It allows us to do what is necessary to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people have raised."
Senior administration officials told The New York Times that the American government wants to end mass metadata collection of mobile phone records by the NSA, and let the phone companies store that data instead. Phone records will be held for 18 months, they suggested, rather than the NSA's claimed hold period of five years.
In addition, when the intelligence agencies want to investigate a specific number, each individual monitoring request will have to be approved by a judge, rather than the yearly blanket approval given currently.
Shortly after the president's announcement, the US House of Representatives' intelligence committee announced new proposed legislation along similar lines. The FISA Transparency and Modernization Act of 2014 would keep phone data in the hands of phone companies and require a court order to allow surveillance of an individual.
"We look forward to working with our colleagues in the House and Senate to enact a bipartisan proposal that will ensure the highest levels of privacy and civil liberties while still maintaining the tools our government needs to keep us, and our allies, safe," said the select committee chairman Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI).
Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA sysadmin behind the leaks that brought these kinds of mass surveillance techniques into public view, and who is now a fugitive as a result, said he broadly welcome the moves in a statement issued via the American Civil Liberties Union.
"President Obama has now confirmed that these mass surveillance programs, kept secret from the public and defended out of reflex rather than reason, are in fact unnecessary and should be ended," he said.
"This is a turning point, and it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public's seat at the table of government." ®