WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is looking at ways to prevent anyone from spying on its own surveillance of Americans’ phone records.
As the Obama administration considers shifting the collection of those records from the National Security Agency to requiring that they be stored at phone companies or elsewhere, it’s quietly funding research to prevent phone company employees or eavesdroppers from seeing whom the U.S. is spying on, The Associated Press has learned.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has paid at least five research teams across the country to develop a system for high-volume, encrypted searches of electronic records kept outside the government’s possession. The project is among several ideas that would allow the government to discontinue storing Americans’ phone records, but still search them as needed.
Under the research, U.S. data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press and AP interviews with researchers, corporate executives and government officials.
In other developments Monday:
• The Justice Department and leading Internet companies agreed to a compromise with the government that would allow the firms to reveal how often they are ordered to turn over information about their customers in national security investigations. The deal with Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. would provide public information in general terms. Other technology companies were also expected to participate.
• Published reports said new documents leaked by former NSA contactor Edward Snowden suggest that popular mapping, gaming and social networking apps on smartphones can feed the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping agency with personal data, including location information and details such as political affiliation or sexual orientation. The reports, published by The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica, said the intelligence agencies get routine access to data generated by apps such as the Angry Birds game franchise or the Google Maps navigation service.
• When the New York Times published a censored U.S. document on the smartphone surveillance program, computer experts said they were able to extract what appeared to be the name of an NSA employee, a Middle Eastern terror group the program was targeting and details about the types of computer files the NSA found useful. Since Snowden began leaking documents in June, his supporters have maintained they have been careful not to disclose any agent’s identity or operational details that would compromise ongoing surveillance. The employee did not return phone or email messages from the AP. A DNI spokesman said they asked the Times to redact, or black out, the material. A Times spokeswoman blamed a “production error” and said the section was redacted.
• NBC News reported that British cyber spies demonstrated a pilot program to their U.S. partners in 2012 in which they were able to monitor YouTube in real time and collect addresses from the billions of videos watched daily, as well as some user information, for analysis. At the time the documents were printed, they were also able to spy on Facebook and Twitter. The network said the monitoring program was called “Squeaky Dolphin.”
Under pressure, the administration has provided only vague descriptions about changes it is considering to the NSA’s daily collection and storage of Americans’ phone records, which are presently kept in NSA databanks. To resolve legal, privacy and civil liberties concerns, President Barack Obama this month ordered the attorney general and senior intelligence officials to recommend changes by March 28 that would allow the U.S. to identify suspected terrorists’ phone calls without the government holding the phone records itself.
One federal review panel urged Obama to order phone companies or an unspecified third party to store the records; another panel said collecting the phone records was illegal and ineffective and urged Obama to abandon the program entirely.
Internal documents describing the Security and Privacy Assurance Research project do not cite the NSA or its phone surveillance program. But if the project were to prove successful, its encrypted search technology could pave the way for the government to shift storage of the records from NSA computers to either phone companies or a third-party organization.