White House/Pete Souza

President Obama is expected to announce major reforms to the best known and most controversial program in the government’s mass surveillance regime, however the devil is in the details.

According to anonymous administration officials speaking to The New York Times, the government will ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize the existing program for 90 days, after which the government will no longer collect and store phone metadata (the logs that contain broader information about people making phone calls).

Instead, telecommunications companies will maintain data for roughly 18 months, and the government will need to procure a new kind of court order to access the information. This aspect is crucial. The bulk collection of data has been called illegal, violating the Constitution’s prohibition against search and seizure without specific warrant based on probable cause. Instead of returning to the legal mechanisms that existed before the Bush and Obama administrations decided to take section 215 of the Patriot Act as carte blanche, the leaked proposal would invent a new legal order the nature of which we will have to know before we can judge.

One thing we are told by the Times report is that the order will allow for two hops from the suspect. So if the government is spying on John Doe, and he calls Nancy Drew, and she calls you, you can be spied on without a separate order.

It’s not clear what will happen to the government’s many other surveillance programs, such as PRISM, that have come to light since the Edward Snowden leaks began dripping out.

When I asked privacy reporter Julia Angwin on Truthdig Radio why people were so fixated on the metadata program, which seems relatively less invasive when compared with PRISM, she suggested it could be because it’s the program that most obviously scoops up American citizens, which runs counter to the NSA’s mandate.

— Posted by Peter Z. Scheer

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