The Complex

Could This Company Be the Answer to Obama’s Big Data Problem?

President Obama announced on Friday that a huge database of all Americans' phone records will be moved out of the National Security Agency, where it's currently stored, and kept either with phone companies or a third party. "This will not be simple," Obama warned. The approach could be more expensive and legally ambiguous than if the government held the records, and it could raise a host of new privacy concerns, the president said.

Who would want, or even be capable of such a job?

Meet Neustar, Inc., a company most people have probably never heard of but have almost certainly dealt with in some form, even if they didn't know it. If you've ever changed cell phone carriers and wanted to keep your old phone number, Neustar "ported" it over for your from one carrier to another. To do that, it keeps a record of all cell phone numbers in the United States. The company also acts as a kind of middleman between law enforcement agencies serving surveillance warrants on telephone companies, ensuring that the companies only give over the amount of information they're legally required to disclose.

So: third-party organization -- check. Maintain huge logs of phone data -- check. Field surveillance requests from government officials -- check.

Neustar, which has headquarters in Sterling, Va., and an office in downtown Washington, D.C., hasn't been contacted by anyone from the administration or the intelligence community, nor has anyone at the company discussed whether it could be the solution to the Obama administration's new big-data problem. But "it's absolutely not a wild and crazy idea," Rodney Joffe, Neustar's senior vice president, told Foreign Policy. Any organization chosen to hold of Americans' phone records "certainly would take some of the strengths we have. We handle very big data. We have to have absolute reliability and security."

Neustar is not a government contractor. But as the administrator of the Number Portability Administration Center -- which allows you to keep that old cell phone number -- Neustar has to abide by neutrality regulations enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. That means the company can't show any favor towards a company or segment of the telecom industry.

That status as an "honest broker" between companies and government will be essential for whatever organization is ultimately elected to house Americans' phone records. The idea is that an outside party with no allegiance to the government or the company will be more likely to adhere strictly to the law and only give over that information that's being requested, and nothing more. Phone giants like Verizon and AT&T, other potential custodians, have already started to push back against any attempt to make them hold onto years' worth of customer records.

Obama has instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to come up with options by the end of March. But there's every reason to believe that actually setting up the system will take much longer. "More work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work," Obama said. The president said he would also seek congressional authorization for the new program if necessary.

Neustar, which doesn't store call data like time and duration of calls, isn't the only potential candidate. Any number of large Defense Department contractors, for instance, that store and analyze huge volumes of Internet traffic looking for cyber threats conceivably could do the job. Lockheed Martin, for instance, runs four large computer network monitoring centers, which store and categorize billions of discrete pieces of data every day. And cloud service providers like Amazon, which is a contractor for the CIA, theoretically have the storage space for such a massive cache of information.

Whether any company would want to be associated with the call records program is another matter. It's the most controversial of the NSA operations revealed by Edward Snowden, and it's future is all but certain. Congress has tried once to suspend the program, and conflicting court decisions over its legality mean it's almost certainly headed to the Supreme Court, which could rule on whether metadata is protected by the Fourth Amendment.

"Whoever does this has to be in an incredible position of trust," Joffe said. The NSA hasn't come calling yet. But, Joffe said, he'd certainly entertain the conversation.

 

John W. Adkisson / Getty News Images

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