US seeks information on industry ability to hold bulk phone data

The government is exploring third-party alternatives for holding the phone metadata

The U.S. government has asked industry for information on whether commercially available services can provide a viable alternative to the government holding bulk phone records for a program of the National Security Agency.

The government's collection of bulk phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act has been at the center of a privacy controversy since June last year when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency was collecting bulk telephony metadata in the U.S. from Verizon.

In a review of NSA surveillance last month, U.S. President Barack Obama called for a new approach on telephony metadata that will "establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata." Obama said that a third party holding all the data in a single, consolidated database would be essentially doing what is a government function, and may not increase public confidence that its privacy is being protected.

The RFI (request for information) by the government aims to get information on U.S. industry's commercially available capabilities, so that the government can investigate alternative approaches "without the government holding the metadata, while maintaining the current capabilities of that system and the existing protections for U.S. persons," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Friday.

The RFI has been posted to the Federal Business Opportunities site that lists federal government procurement opportunities. The government is looking for information on whether commercially available services can, among other things, provide secure storage and high availability to U.S. telephone metadata records for a sufficient period of time, and ensure that there are no unauthorized queries of the database and no data is provided to the government without proper authorization.

In a related development, the government got approval from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to amend a Jan. 3 primary order on telephony metadata collection, James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence said in a statement. The motion and orders will be released to the public after a classification review scheduled for Feb. 17.

The focus of the new motion was on Obama's direction that, as a transitional move, the government should with work with FISC to ensure that the telephony metadata can be queried only after a judicial finding or if there is an emergency. Obama also directed that the government will pursue phone calls that are two-steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist group, instead of the three hops previously authorized.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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