US court extends NSA surveillance rules in current form

A reform bill, USA Freedom Act, ran into difficulties in the Senate

A U.S. secret court has extended the authorization of the National Security Agency to continue surveillance of phone records in its current form, after a reform bill ran into difficulties in the Senate.

Besides stopping the NSA from collecting bulk phone records of Americans from phone companies, the USA Freedom Act aimed to restrict access of the NSA to these records by requiring the use of targeted selection terms.

It also has a provision for the appointment of a special advocate tasked with promoting privacy interests in closed proceedings in the secret court.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has reauthorized the NSA program for another 90 days at a request from the government, according to a statement Monday by the offices of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence. The order expires on Feb. 27 next year.

In the wake of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the government was collecting bulk phone metadata of Americans from Verizon, President Barack Obama announced reforms to the program earlier this year, including a plan to stop NSA from collecting and holding the data from operators in bulk.

Obama instructed that other than in an emergency, phone metadata could only be queried after a judicial finding that there was a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the selection term was linked to an approved international terrorist organization. He also directed that the query results must be limited to associated metadata within two hops, or connections, from the selection term instead of the earlier three. The two changes to the program have been made since February this year, according to officials.

For the plan that the phone records data should stay with telephone companies, Obama said the necessary legislation would be required. Last month, the USA Freedom Act ran into difficulties in the Senate, and could not be moved towards a final vote. The setback could delay any NSA reform until next year.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, the sponsor of the bill and a Democrat from Vermont, last week said Obama could end the NSA's dragnet collection of phone records once and for all by not asking for reauthorization of the program by the FISC.

"Doing so would not be a substitute for comprehensive surveillance reform legislation -- but it would be an important first step," Leahy said in a statement.

Obama had in November urged the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act and officials in the administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, also backed it.

The revelations by Snowden triggered a number of privacy suits in various courts challenging the legality of the NSA program.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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