NSA phone tracking to be scaled back, says official

The NSA expects to scale back its phone tracking program in the near future, the agency’s director says. The comments came as part of a broader hearing in front of the House Intelligence Committee over the recent disclosures of NSA activities.

Director Gen. Keith Alexander told California Rep. Adam Schiff during questioning that his agency and the FBI are reviewing how the phone tracking program might be changed. Currently, the NSA asks only for the metadata -- general information about the call like phone numbers, duration, and location -- whether the person is suspected of terrorism or not, and en masse.

Schiff asked whether the agencies could change the program so that the information is only given when a specific customer is suspected of terrorism. Alexander responded that this is already something surveillance agencies are considering, and is to be implemented in the future.

The extent of the NSA’s phone tracking program was first revealed by the Guardian two weeks ago, saying the secretive FISA court ordered Verizon Wireless to hand over call data on its 100 million-plus customers. It was one of the first stories the UK paper was able to publish following a series of leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden, and triggered a rush of stories on the NSA’s widespread surveillance programs.

Pressure ‘From the Highest Level’

While the actual content of phone calls is not monitored, the news triggered a vigorous discussion on the NSA’s place in law enforcement, and the necessity for such broad-based spying on ordinary Americans. Civil liberties groups said the news illustrated American’s ignorance of its government’s activities in a post 9/11 world, and the ACLU said the secrecy around the program was "inconsistent with our democratic values of open government and accountability".

Several bills are now making their way through Congress to strip the programs of their secrecy, especially the FISA courts where these programs are approved. So far none have made it to the President’s desk, but Obama and his team seem to be actively involved in changing the program’s scope.

Following the hearing, NBC News reported that Alexander says he thinks the move to end the widespread phone tracking comes "from the highest level," suggesting the Obama Administration is pressuring the agencies to scale back their operations. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein also asked the NSA to determine whether the phone tracking can be scaled back.

That response is due in a month, Alexander says.

Ed Oswald is the founder and editor-in-chief of TechPolitik, a technology blog that explores technology issues and their effect on politics in Washington, D.C. and around the world. His work has appeared on several sites including BetaNews, ExtremeTech, PC World, Technologizer and VentureBeat over the past decade in the tech news business.

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