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For Advocates And Telephone Companies, NSA Changes Are Welcome News


NPR's Steve Henn joins us now to talk about how phone companies are already treating customer data and what that means for how the proposed NSA program might operate. Hi, Steve.


SIEGEL: And what does this mean that under this proposal the NSA would no longer hold calling records, but would have to go to phone companies to access them?

HENN: Well, I think the significance of that for the NSA really isn't that great. In terms of the total amount of data that the NSA will be able to access, the agency is probably not giving up a lot by agreeing to stop holding these records themselves. I mean, phone companies already have a business incentive to keep this kind of calling data for years and make it easy to search and analyze.

Most policymakers I've talked to say the real battle here that matters is what are the rules going to be that govern when and how the NSA or other law enforcement agencies can access this data, how wide a net will they be allowed to cast.

SIEGEL: So the intelligence community was concerned that if they didn't hold the data themselves, but had to rely on the telephone companies, in the midst of investigations they might discover that older records they needed had been destroyed, say.

HENN: Well, that's right. Under the current system, the NSA hold on to this bulk collection of records, these phone-calling records for five years. And right now, phone companies are only legally required to retain calling records for 18 months. The administration reportedly considered and then rejected the idea of changing this legal mandate and increasing the time companies have to hold onto calling data. And it was pretty widely reported that phone companies pushed back against this idea, saying that holding onto data for five years would be too onerous and expensive.

SIEGEL: Well, Steve, you don't entirely buy this, do you?

HENN: No, I really don't. You know, every day, memory, digital memory, computer memory and storage is getting cheaper. At the same time, the perceived business value of big sets of consumer data is constantly going up. So the idea that phone companies would want to toss out their calling records after 18 months just didn't strike me as plausible.

These kinds of rich consumer data sets allow executives to glean insights about how people use their telephone networks. They can help marketers better pitch new services and gain new insights into their consumer demographics. So in my experience, all kinds of companies are beginning to hoard data like this. They're not getting rid of it.

SIEGEL: So what are phone companies doing with our calling records right now? How long are they holding onto this information?

HENN: Well, that answer is going to change from company to company and from service to service. But it turns out there's a really simple way for you to check this for yourself. You can just go online to your own phone company's website, check out your old bills and see how far back they're archived. I did that this morning and within a few seconds I was looking at call records from my own business phone that were more than three years old.

And looking at numbers I called on March 15, 2011 at 9:46 in the morning, I could see how long the call lasted, how many times I called that number. And by looking up that number, I didn't recognize it immediately, I was able to figure out really quickly what story I was working on and I could see all of my sources for that story laid out in my call logs. So obviously this information could still be very valuable to an investigator. It will still be accessible. The difference is that now the NSA will have to go to a court and get an order in order to begin to access it.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Steve.

HENN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Steve Henn in Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.