The U.S. government has asked a secret surveillance court to allow it to hold telephone metadata for a period beyond the current five-year limit, for use as potential evidence in civil lawsuits regarding the collection of the data.
In June last year, former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, revealed that the agency was collecting bulk phone records of Verizon customers in the U.S.
The government subsequently confirmed that it had a program for the bulk collection of phone metadata, which triggered a number of privacy law suits in various courts challenging the legality of the NSA program under section 215 of the Patriot Act.
When litigation is pending against a party, or is reasonably anticipated, the party has a duty to preserve relevant information that may be evidence in the case, the Department of Justice stated in a filing Tuesday before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that was made public Wednesday.
"A party may be exposed to a range of sanctions not only for violating a preservation order, but also for failing to produce relevant evidence when ordered to do so because it destroyed information that it had a duty to preserve," it wrote, while pointing out that it hasn't received a specific preservation order so far in any of the civil lawsuits.
The American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. Senator Rand Paul and the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles are among those who have filed lawsuits challenging the phone records program.
The telephony metadata retained beyond five years for the purpose of the civil litigation will be kept in a format that prevents access or use of it by NSA staff for any purpose including queries for gathering foreign intelligence information, according to the filing.
The U.S. government is, meanwhile, exploring alternatives to the NSA holding the phone data. It has asked industry for information on whether commercially available services can provide a viable alternative to the government holding the bulk data.
In a review of NSA surveillance last month, 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."