The retiring chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee said he was “concerned any change of our current framework will harm both national security and privacy.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller says he'd rather see NSA bulk data remain in the government's hands than be entrusted to the private sector.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller took aim at an Obama administration proposal to move storage of bulk telephonic metadata from government systems inside the intelligence community to telecommunications companies, saying he did not “believe we can come up with a better alternative.”
"I am concerned any change of our current framework will harm both national security and privacy,” the West Virginia Democrat said at a Jan. 29 hearing of the Intelligence Committee.
Rather than ask questions of four intelligence chiefs gathered for the annual unclassified "threat assessment" hearing, Rockefeller used his time to issue a blistering broadside against the idea of reverting storage of data collected by government under the authority of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to private sector telecommunications companies. Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee, has long experience overseeing telecom regulators.
"Ultimately the decision rests with Congress. And this senator is absolutely opposed to contracting out this inherently core governmental function," Rockefeller said
Rockefeller noted that there are hundreds of niche telecommunications providers nationwide, not simply a handful of large companies. He warned that private companies are reluctant to take on the job of storing the data, especially if it could potentially be subject to discovery in a civil lawsuit. Private companies don't swear allegiance to the government the way intelligence officers do, he noted. Moreover, he suggested, the government and the private sector lack the technical capacity to make such a system operate effectively.
The telecoms, he said, "do not want to become agents of the government. They do not want to become the government's guardians of vast amounts of intelligence data."
Rockefeller cautioned that the rise of the data brokerage industry and recent data breaches at Target and other retailers heightened his concern that the bulk metadata might leak out from private sector sources. "This is not a foundation for a good partnership," he said.
Rockefeller also gave some idea of the scope of the operations side of querying the metadata collected under the 2001 anti-terrorism law. He indicated that just 22 supervisors and 33 intelligence analysts inside the Intelligence Directorate were authorized to query the database, and do so using anonymized phone numbers, not names or other data. "Their queries are subject to multiple overlapping checks, audits, and inspections," he said.
"The hard fact is that our national security interests do not change just because public opinion on an issue fluctuates," he said.
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