David Ignatius: NSA weighs its options

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: July 29, 2013

This approach avoids the “Big Brother” connotations of government control, although it has two problems: First, private companies may not want the hassle of acting as surveillance record-keepers. And second, the records might be accessed by self-appointed whistle-blowers or disgruntled employees who had private scores to settle.

How long should the records be held? The NSA could purge the records sooner than five years, but officials worry that the shorter the retention period, the less effective the metadata will be as a way of tracking dangerous links.

How can oversight be improved? The NSA thinks the rules are already pretty good, with Congress and the courts joining the executive branch in detailed reviews of compliance with the law and its privacy protections. Judging by the poll data, the public isn't convinced. Greater transparency — at the FISA court, in the congressional intelligence committees and at NSA itself — would help. In reality, however, no level of scrutiny would be tight enough to reassure everyone.

A final, delicate challenge for the NSA is maintaining its relationships with telephone companies that are anxious about customer and shareholder concerns. U.S. officials believe the best defense for the companies is simply to claim that they have no other choice — that they are compelled by legal orders to give up the data.

But the companies would be happier, surely, with a softer, more transparent and customer-friendly wrapper for a program that makes many Americans nervous.


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