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

National Security

Marine Commandos Make Horrible Martin Luther King Jr. Gaffe on Twitter

The national holiday honoring assassinated civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. is Monday, and it has turned into a massive headache for the U.S. Marine Corps' special operations organization. Marine Corps Force Special Operations Command posted a message on Twitter Friday urging Marines to stay safe over the holiday weekend -- and urging them not to be a "lone shooter."

"Don't be lone shooter #MLK weekend! make sure you've got security - stay safe! #MARSOC #Marines #shortbarrelforVBSS," said the message, posted at 10:52 a.m. along with a link to a photo of a Marine aiming a short-barreled rifle out a window.

The post was quickly removed when attention was drawn to it.

"Could this have been stated more awkwardly?" asked one Twitter user going by the handle Tequila0341.

"That MARSOC #MLKweekend "lone shooter" tweet is gonna get someone fired," said another Twitter user, @JRMoockjr.


King was killed April 4, 1968, by a lone gunman in Memphis, Tenn. His holiday coincides with his birthday, Jan. 15.

MARSOC quickly removed the post after questions were raised.

"Marine leaders will frequently take the opportunity to remind their personnel to make wise decisions and to look out for each other especially before a long holiday weekend," Lt. Col. Neil Murphy, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, told Foreign Policy. "The intent of the post was to remind personnel to partner up when going out over the weekend and to look out for each other. When MARSOC was alerted to the potential that this military post could be viewed as insensitive or offensive when combined with the historical facts concerning Martin Luther King Jr., they immediately took it down and have posted a short apology."

UPDATE: 1:31 p.m.:  MARSOC just posted the following in regard to their last tweet.


The gaffe perpetuates an ongoing problem between the military and civilian world. U.S. service members frequently use military or gun terminology when speaking about other issues, causing confusion or misinterpretations.

In one example, a comment from an Army officer published in Army Times in 2012 was twisted in a subsequent article in The Nation to insinuate that the U.S. military is actively and deliberately targeting children during military operations in Afghanistan. The initial comments said only that the Taliban's use of children in the war zone "kind of opens our aperture" on what U.S. forces must observe while in Afghanistan -- a gun reference apparently lost on The Nation.

Twitter photo