U.S. Looks at Ways to Prevent Spying on Its Spying

WASHINGTON (AP) -

The U.S. government is looking into encryption techniques that could prevent eavesdroppers from spying on its own surveillance of Americans’ phone records.

As the Obama administration considers shifting the collection of those records from the National Security Agency to requiring that they be stored at phone companies or elsewhere, it’s quietly funding research to prevent phone company employees or eavesdroppers from seeing whom the U.S. is spying on, The Associated Press has learned.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has paid at least five research teams across the country to develop a system for high-volume, encrypted searches of electronic records kept outside the government’s possession. The project is among several ideas that would allow the government to discontinue storing Americans’ phone records, but still search them as needed.

Under the research, U.S. data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press and AP interviews with researchers, corporate executives and government officials.

The administration has provided only vague descriptions about changes it is considering to the NSA’s daily collection and storage of Americans’ phone records, which are at present kept in NSA databanks.

The NSA’s surveillance program collects millions of Americans’ daily calling records into a central agency database. When the agency wants to review telephone traffic associated with a suspected terrorist — the agency made 300 such queries in 2012 — it then searches that data bank and retrieves matching calling records, and stores them separately for further analysis.

On Monday, the Justice Department and leading internet companies agreed to a compromise that would allow firms to reveal how often they are ordered to turn over information about their customers in national security investigations. The government deal with Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc., and LinkedIn Corp. would provide public information in general terms. Other tech companies are also expected to participate.