President Barack Obama’s recently released plan to curb National Security Agency (NSA) data collection programs was met with praise from companies, lawmakers and the public, but it may severely complicate operations for service providers.
One of President Obama’s main overhauls involves abolishing the NSA’s bulk phone metadata storage program and instead requiring service providers to store that data themselves.
Providers already have to store billing information for 18 months per Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, but there’s no regulation as to how they have to store that data. Some even store it on paper (or could if they wanted to), according to one U.S. official.
Billing in the industry has changed the data they store as well. Now popular unlimited plans are billed differently than traditional by-the-minute plans. With unlimited plans, providers don’t bill by the call, so the data isn’t on the bills. U.S. government officials told Reuters that if the NSA wanted data from an unlimited plan subscriber, providers would only be able to give them data from that point forward, not retrospectively.
Metadata includes the duration and phone numbers called but does not include voice data.
This plan would keep the data out of NSA hands until they explicitly requested certain data and was approved by a court.
That could require service providers to undertake all new storage operations, some that don’t exactly go hand in hand with their business needs. Now if a phone company decides certain data is irrelevant to its business, it can throw it out. An industry source told Reuters that changing that “strips from us the ability to make business decisions as the technology evolves. It would cause us to continue to collect stuff we don’t need.”
Randal Milch, the executive vice president of public policy, law and security at Verizon, said in a blog post after news of President Obama’s plan that “we propose this basic principle that should guide the effort: the reformed collection process should not require companies to store data for longer than, or in formats that differ from, what they already do for business purposes.”
Obama’s proposal still has to be approved by Congress and in the meantime, the system that causes so much outrage in the past could stay in place for another 90 days. There’s no guarantee that Congress will approve of the plan. Many Congress-members will likely lobby for their own overhaul proposals (of which there are many) to be incorporated into the changes.
A senior administration official told Reuters that service providers would be compensated in "a way consistent with current procedures," but that doesn't specify whether increased costs for providers could end up getting passed onto the customer.