Will the NSA Stop Collecting Phone Record Data? Maybe

Although the NSA’s surveillance program collecting phone record data might have been among the many efforts to help stop up to 50 potential terrorist attacks worldwide since 9/11, it is considering stopping its active collection of such information and letting it stay with communications companies until it’s needed, the agency revealed during a House Intelligence Committee hearing this week.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA’s director since  2005, told the committee Tuesday that the NSA and FBI are reviewing “how we actually do this program,” in light of recent leaks about two surveillance programs that have caused some concern over domestic spying, NBC News reported.

National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander arrives to testify before the House Select Intelligence Committee on the NSA’s PRISM program, which tracks web traffic and US citizens’ phone records, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 18, 2013. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

After further questioning by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Alexander said that leaving phone call history — or metadata — in the telecommunication companies care instead of having it sent to the NSA is “something that we’ve agreed to look at and that we’ll do.” This means data would remain with the company until the government decides to investigate someone who is suspected of having a connection with foreign terrorists.

Still, revising its program to do this though, Alexander said, would “take some time.”

“We want to do it right,” he said.

Such a change for the program was brought on “from the highest level — the public pressure,” according to Alexander.

This Thursday, June 6, 2013 file photo shows the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. When Edward Snowden – the 29-year-old intelligence contractor whose leak of top-secret documents has exposed sweeping government surveillance programs – went to Arundel High School, the agency regularly sent employees from its nearby black-glass headquarters to tutor struggling math students. (Photo: AP/Patrick Semansky)

Here’s more from NBC about the program’s review:

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper first hinted at the review in a recent interview with NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, saying that Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein had asked the intelligence community to examine if it can “refine” its collection procedures. “We owe her an answer in about a month,” he said.

Separately, a U.S. government official told NBC News on Tuesday that Alexander and FBI Director Robert Mueller are now jointly conducting the review.

The collection of the metadata is separate from another program revealed by Snowden. Under that program, known as PRISM, the NSA intercepts the phone calls and read the emails of individuals in the United States only after obtaining FISC warrants showing they have  connections to suspected terrorists overseas.

utah data center nsa
This Monday, June 10, 2013 photo, shows a ground level view of Utah’s NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. The nation’s new billion-dollar epicenter for fighting global cyberthreats sits just south of Salt Lake City, tucked away on a National Guard base at the foot of snow-capped mountains. The long, squat buildings span 1.5 million square feet, and are filled with super-powered computers designed to store massive amounts of information gathered secretly from phone calls and emails. (Photo: AP/Rick Bowmer)

Alexander acknowledged that having only the telecom retain metadata could cause problems in terms of speed for the agency identifying threats in crisis situations. Not only that, but the government’s program retains the data for five years, while companies might only keep it for “six to 18 months,” NBC reported the NSA’s Deputy Director Chris Inglis saying.

NBC also reported an official, who remained anonymous, saying the agency having to go to different phone companies to collect data on a target is more of a hassle that a one-stop-shop database. This source also said such a change might require a mandate for phone companies to retain data in the first place and specify a certain length of time.

During the hearing, Alexander said metadata is not under constant review looking for patterns but it is queried. He noted less than 300 queries being made in 2012. Of the 50 plots thwarted through the intelligence programs, Alexander said just over 10 had ties to the United States and that phone record data helped identify most of these. Ninety percent of the plots were stopped through intelligence gathered by the Internet surveillance program called PRISM.

Watch NBC’s report about the hearing: