Tech firms: We don’t want to keep Internet metadata for the government


(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Tech and telephone companies made clear to administration officials in a meeting Friday that they do not want to see bulk collection activities expanded to Internet data.

And they most certainly do not want to see Congress pass mandates to require them to hold that data so the government can collect it.

"Technology is increasingly moving away from phone calls to texting and chat and social media, so it's hard to believe that governments around the world would not be interested in that data," said one participant in the White House meeting, who like others interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the conversation. Administration participants included White House chief privacy officer Nicole Wong, who is a former Google deputy general counsel and Twitter legal director, and cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel.

The administration has acknowledged that it had run a program of Internet metadata collection -- gathering times and dates and IP addresses of e-mails, for instance -- but dropped it in 2011 when it did not prove operationally feasible.

"So the companies made very clear that they don't want the government restarting that program," said the participant. "But if you do, we don't want mandatory retention for Internet metadata."

The tech firms at the meeting, which included Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, among others, have sent a letter to President Obama and Congress calling for surveillance reform based on principles such as banning bulk collection of Internet communications.

Clearly, the companies are anxious about the impact that revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has had on their business -- in particular overseas. "There was a lot of discussion about the importance of giving the global citizenry comfort, sending messages that the U.S. government is making changes that protect the information of people from all over the world so that there's more confidence in the companies that have a global customer base," said the participant.

Also at the meeting were officials from AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. Their discussion focused on the NSA's bulk collection of domestic phone toll logs, which has been a topic of controversy since the program was revealed last June through a leak from  Snowden. Obama is due to give a speech Friday in which he will announce his decision on the NSA program's future.

Advocates of ending the program often argue that collection can be done without Congress passing legislation to force the phone companies to hold the data for longer periods. They often point to a Federal Communications Commission rule that says carriers must keep the billing records -- numbers dialed, length and time of call -- for 18 months.

They explained to administration officials on Friday that increasingly phone companies are turning to flat rate plans, which means they do not keep this data for billing purposes. If a customer pays $100 a month for a set number of minutes, it does not matter whom she calls and where as long as she does not exceed the limit. Some plans offer unlimited calling.

And often companies may not keep toll records of the incoming calls because the data is not needed for billing purposes, beyond the name of the carrier that called their customer, which is needed for inter-carrier billing.

So the take-away, industry officials say, is that relying on the FCC rule won't be enough if the NSA wants the carriers to keep comprehensive data sets. But even more important, they say, they do not want Congress imposing mandates to keep the data longer than they already do.

"We end up with all sorts of litigation risks, privacy risks, hacking vulnerabilities," one executive told The Washington Post. "There is a huge cost involved in just protecting them. And, truthfully, we just don’t want to do it." 

Lawmakers who advocate the end of bulk collection also do not want data retention mandates. They argue that so far no intelligence official has offered instances where data held for periods longer than the companies would normally keep them has yielded "unique value" in thwarting a terrorist plot.

"We have yet to see any evidence that the bulk phone records collection program has provided any otherwise unobtainable evidence," Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a letter to Obama last week.

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