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Obama calls for changes to NSA phone-records program

The president says a court OK will be required for the secretive spy agency to access data on calls placed and received and that the database should be held by a still-to-be-determined third party.

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Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
2 min read
President Obama speaks on NSA reform Friday. Whitehouse.gov live stream/Screenshot by CNET

President Obama has ordered a redesign of the NSA's controversial phone-records program, saying the secretive spy agency will now need court permission to get at stored data on calls and should no longer collect and store the information itself. Instead, the bulk metadata -- which includes information on calls placed and received -- will be held by a yet-to-be-determined third party.

The changes are among those announced by the president during a speech Friday that revealed Obama's response to reform proposals made by his handpicked NSA review group. The group -- formed in response to the debate over civil liberties and national security sparked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden -- had suggested the court order and third-party modifications as a way of guarding against the potential for government abuse of the data.

"It is not enough for leaders to say, 'Trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect,'" Obama said during the speech, "for history has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends upon the law to constrain those in power."

Obama has charged the attorney general and intelligence agencies with developing a workable third-party solution for the Section 215 metadata program by the end of March and will also solicit input from Congress, since the change could require legislation.

Obama also ended spying on the heads of state of close US allies; gave foreigners more privacy protections in regard to NSA surveillance; and created a public advocacy panel, so privacy concerns -- and not just the government's position -- can be aired before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

He passed on the review group's recommendation that a court order be required for national security letters -- administrative subpoenas used by law enforcement to demand customer data from companies -- but he said greater transparency would be allowed in regard to NSL requests and that companies would be able to provide more information to customers about the requests they receive.

You can read our more detailed story on the president's speech, including the response by critics, here.