The secret courts now operate with only the government making its case to a federal judge for examining someone's phone data. Civil libertarians have called for a voice in the room that might offer the judge an opposing view.
"The devil is in the details of how the government collects and retains phone records," said Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, "and I think we're going to see pretty quickly the lack of specificity behind some of the president's promises."
Obstacles to enacting Obama's plans are expected to mount quickly as administration officials and legislators grapple over what sort of entity will oversee the calling records swept up by the NSA. Obama ordered the Justice Department and intelligence officials to devise a plan within the next two months.
Privacy advocates also questioned the administration's silence on what it will do with hundreds of millions of phone records, at minimum, that are now kept on file in government inventories. Citing the NSA's plans to build a vast data storage facility in Utah, Romero said "there was nothing in the president's speech about what's already in the government's hands."
Obama's task force, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, had recommended cutting the time that the NSA could retain private records from five to two years. But Obama's proposals do not address the issue of duration, leaving those records still in NSA control for the foreseeable future.
Who or what takes over the storage of private phone records is also at issue. Telephone company executives and their lawyers have bluntly told administration officials they do not want to become the NSA's data minders. Cellular industry executives prefer the NSA keep control over the surveillance program and would only accept changes if they were legally required and spelled out in legislation.