Hold the Phone: The U.S. is Keeping Your Numbers After All

BreakingModern — One year ago, with Americans reeling from Edward Snowden’s revelations that the National Security Agency was systematically intercepting and storing their communications, President Obama delivered a televised speech to the nation promising reforms in order to safeguard Americans’ privacy.

“One of the biggest changes will be an overhaul of the government’s handling of bulk telephone ‘metadata,'” CNBC reported in January 2014. “In a nod to privacy advocates, Obama decided that the government should not hold the bulk telephone metadata, a decision that could frustrate some intelligence officials.”

US-will-keep-your-raw-phone-data-collected-by-NSATelephony metadata is industry jargon for basic information about a phone call: the number from which it originates, the number called, the duration of the call, and the geographical locations of both ends of the call. NSA defenders, including the president, argued that Americans shouldn’t be concerned about the bulk collection of these records because they didn’t include the content of the call, or the names of the phone customers involved.

In fact, as reported two months later in March 2014, the NSA does record and store recordings of Americans’ phone calls. Also, as a pair of Stanford University researchers proved, it is ridiculously easy to match phone numbers to names.

So Obama’s 2014 promise to place metadata under the control of a third party was never going to be much of a big deal from a privacy standpoint.

Lame as it was, even that pledge is dead.

“President Barack Obama’s administration has quietly abandoned a proposal it had been considering to put raw U.S. telephone call data collected by the National Security Agency under non-governmental control, several U.S. security officials said,” according to Reuters.

The Administration cited “concerns about the extra costs of moving data from telecom companies to a third party, and in a format which the government agencies found easy to use.”

Ah, the problems of those who spy on us so much that they don’t know what to do with all the data that they end up with. How to format it? Excel spreadsheet? Comma-delineated? Lotus 1-2-3? This is the government were talking about.

Reuters again: “The official said that no final decision had been made on the issue, but said the president’s goal remained that the government would no longer hold the data.” Given the fact that it is also the president’s goal to close Guantánamo, and almost no progress has been made toward that end in six years, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Next month the director of National Intelligence, who oversees the NSA and CIA, is scheduled to release a report detailing what progress, if any, the Obama administration has made to safeguard our privacy in the year since the president’s January 2014 speech.

I’m expecting that will be a short report.

For BMod, I’m Ted Rall.

Cover image: Unknown and/or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ted Rall

Author: Ted Rall

Based in New York, Ted Rall is an award-winning political cartoonist, essayist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He covers news, justice, music and privacy for BreakingModern. Follow him @TedRall.

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