The government keeps Americans' phone records for at least five years before destroying them. Obama's review committee said phone companies could hold the same data for two years before destroying them. NSA officials have said they could compromise no lower than three years but want all the data to be standardized.
"The data has to be provided or kept in a way that allows it to be integrated" by the NSA, said the agency's general counsel, Rajesh De, during a November hearing of the semi-independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, another task force examining the surveillance program.
Currently, phone companies differ in what they keep on file. For example, according to Justice Department records, Verizon maintains calling-detail records over a rolling year, disposing of them once a year passes. Sprint and Nextel keep them 18 to 24 months, while T-Mobile and AT&T divide the records into pre-paid and post-paid categories, with different durations.
Standardizing such a variety of reporting and storage requirements and holding so much more data would cause phone companies to expand their collection infrastructure and hire more lawyers and technical staff to respond to the NSA's needs.
"It would be enormously costly and burdensome to set up and implement," said Michael Sussmann, a Washington attorney who specializes in technology and national security issues. "However you change the system, they would have to handle a greater set of data than they collected before. And more people— of all sorts— will come looking for it."
The cost could be high. Last week, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said it would cost at least $60 million to shift the records for the NSA program to phone providers. Feinstein opposes such a shift.
Keeping the records at phone companies so they could be readily searched by the government won't satisfy privacy advocates, either.