President Obama last week signaled that he is open to reforming the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata, including an advisory panel recommendation that phone companies or third parties hold onto the data instead of the NSA. However, phone companies apparently aren't thrilled with the idea.
Major phone companies argue that being required to store metadata for an extended period of time for the NSA would be costly, time consuming, and risky, according to a report from The Washington Post on Saturday.
The NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata, which it legally justifies under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, was revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. While courts are split about the legality of the surveillance program, the NSA is currently allowed to store phone data for up to five years.
One recommendation floated by Obama's hand-picked NSA reform panel was scrapping the NSA's direct collection and storage of data and instead having the phone companies hang onto it. In this scenario, the NSA would be required to get a court order on a case-by-case basis to receive specific data from the phone firms.
The panel's report, which was released by the White House earlier in December, urges phone companies to reach an agreement with the government to store phone metadata. But if a "voluntary approach" doesn't work, the panel said legislation may be required.
So what do phone companies think of this voluntary approach? "No way," said an unnamed industry executive, according to the Post. Apparently, some phone companies aren't too keen on storing data for the NSA:
"We don't want to keep these records," said an industry executive, who like several others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly. "We end up with all sorts of litigation risks, privacy risks, hacking vulnerabilities. There is a huge cost involved in just protecting them. And truthfully, we just don't want to do it."
One major carrier estimated that it would cost "in the range of $50 million" a year to maintain a five-year, searchable database, according to a company official.
The companies and security experts say the stored records would become an attractive target for hackers.
"We've always thought it was a bad idea," said a second telecom industry executive. "What I find perplexing about this is privacy advocates don't like the idea, the intelligence community doesn't like the idea, and the carriers don't like the idea. So it's not clear whether you are solving a problem or making the problem worse."
The Post goes on to note that some politicians and privacy advocates are also against the idea of phone companies or third parties storing phone data for an extended period of time.
In total, the NSA advisory panel made 46 recommendations to the White House on ways to address concerns over privacy and potential domestic spying. Obama said he is considering the recommendations and decisions will be made in January.