Obama's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies was expected to discuss the dilemma over the phone records program Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The committee will play an important role in any new legislation on the issue. Executives and industry lawyers said phone companies would reluctantly agree to become the stewards of the phone records only if current laws were changed relieving them of legal responsibilities and paying their costs. The industry is also wary of NSA insistence that the records would need to be standardized and probably held for longer periods than most firms now keep them.
Liability is a key concern for phone companies, which could be sued if hackers or others were able to gain unauthorized access to the records. Under the Patriot Act, which governs the NSA's phone collection program, the phone companies are free of legal responsibility for disclosing customer records to the government in counterterrorism investigations. Industry lawyers say similar protections could be broadened to cover phone companies holding customer data for the NSA, but it's unclear whether Congress would pass them.
A former top NSA lawyer and Bush administration national security official who has represented phone firms, Stewart Baker, said Congress only grudgingly granted legal protections to the phone companies in the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks.
"The phone companies were seared by their experience in Congress and can't be enthusiastic about a return engagement," Baker said.
Even with broader legal protections, the companies would expect to cope with a surge in demands for business records from local prosecutors, private lawyers, insurance firms and others. Companies already retain some customer records, but the duration of their storage and the kinds of records they keep vary. While T-Mobile keeps records for seven to 10 years, according to a recent Senate Commerce Committee study, other major firms — including Verizon, US Cellular and Sprint — keep them less than two years.