FACT SHEET: The Administration’s Proposal for Ending the Section 215 Bulk Telephony Metadata Program
On January 17, 2014, President Obama gave a speech at the Department of Justice on his Administration’s review of certain intelligence activities. During this speech, he ordered a transition that would end the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program as it previously existed and establish a new mechanism to preserve the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata. The President made clear that he was ordering this transition to give the public greater confidence that their privacy is appropriately protected, while maintaining the tools our intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to keep us safe. This fact sheet describes the steps the Administration has taken to implement this transition, details the President’s proposal for a new program to replace the Section 215 program, and outlines the steps the Administration will be taking in the near future to realize the President’s vision.
Ending the Section 215 Bulk Telephony Metadata Program as it Existed
On January 17, 2014, the President directed the first step in the transition of the Section 215 program; that the Department of Justice (DOJ) to seek to modify the program to ensure that:
- Absent an emergency situation, the government can query the telephony metadata collected pursuant to the program only after a judge approves the use of specific numbers for such queries based on national security concerns; and
- The results of any query are limited to metadata within two hops of the selection term being used, instead of three.
On February 5, 2014, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) approved the government’s request to modify the program.
The President’s Proposal to Replace the Section 215 Program
For the second step in the transition, the President instructed the Attorney General and the Intelligence Community (IC) to develop options for a new program that could match the capabilities and fill the gaps that the Section 215 metadata program was designed to address without the government holding the bulk telephony metadata records. The President further instructed the Attorney General and the IC to report back to him with options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization by the FISC on March 28th.
Consistent with this directive, DOJ and the IC developed options designed to meet the criteria the President laid out in his speech -- to preserve the capabilities we need without the government holding this metadata. The Administration has also consulted with Congress, the private sector, privacy and civil liberties groups, and other interested groups.
On the basis of these consultations, and after having carefully considered the available options, the President has decided on a proposal that will, with the passage of appropriate legislation, allow the government to end bulk collection of telephony metadata records under Section 215, while ensuring that the government has access to the information it needs to meet its national security requirements. Under the President’s proposal, a new program would be created with the following key attributes:
- the government will not collect these telephone records in bulk; rather, the records would remain at the telephone companies for the length of time they currently do today;
- absent an emergency situation, the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns;
- the records provided to the government in response to queries would only be within two hops of the selection term being used, and the government’s handling of any records it acquires will be governed by minimization procedures approved by the FISC;
- the court-approved numbers could be used to query the data over a limited period of time without returning to the FISC for approval, and the production of records would be ongoing and prospective; and
- the companies would be compelled by court order to provide technical assistance to ensure that the records can be queried and that results are transmitted to the government in a usable format and in a timely manner.
The President believes that this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence requirements while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which this information is collected and held.
The Path Forward
Legislation will be needed to implement the President’s proposal. The Administration has been in consultation with congressional leadership and members of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees on this important issue throughout the last year, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to pass a bill that achieves the goals the President has put forward. Given that this legislation will not be in place by March 28 and given the importance of maintaining the capabilities in question, the President has directed DOJ to seek from the FISC a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program, which includes the substantial modifications in effect since February.