Jan 23, 2015 · 2 minutes

President Obama has reportedly scrapped plans to have a private company hold the phone metadata collected through National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Reuters says in a report citing several anonymous security professionals that the plan was abandoned because it's seen as "unworkable for both legal and practical reasons." A source told Reuters that the decision is not final, but privatizing the data seems unlikely.

The plan was first proposed after the government faced widespread criticism when the NSA's worldwide surveillance dragnets were revealed to the public in June 2013, when the Guardian published the first reports based on Edward Snowden's leaked documents.

Those dragnets collect information about Americans' communications -- both inside and outside the country -- and make them available to the NSA's intelligence partners. (This includes both foreign intelligence agencies and federal agencies like the FBI.)

Some apparently believed taking all that information and giving it to private companies, instead of ending the data collection itself, could help address some of that criticism. But as Pando's Yasha Levine explained when this privatization concept was revealed:

The notion that privatizing metadata storage will protect our privacy and civil liberties is insane, dangerous and just plain ol’ wrong.

It would make our private data less secure, offer fewer legal protections and be huge giveaway to private security contractors like Booz Allen, opening the door to all sorts of other corrupt privatization schemes and unaccountable illegal activity. No matter how much it may abuse its mandate, our government is still legally required to protect our constitutional rights — something that corporations are not obligated to do. (I'm not sure the government is as committed to upholding the Constitution as Levine might like -- it has a habit of ignoring domestic and foreign laws, especially when it "fights terrorism" with surveillance and torture programs -- but otherwise I agree.)

The White House is still looking to remove the metadata collected via NSA programs from the government's hands. One possibility still under consideration, according to Reuters, is asking telecommunications companies to hold the metadata themselves.

Telcos have pushed against that prospect in the past due to concerns about how long they would be asked to hold the data, to whom they would have to provide access, and the prospect of legal challenges related to the collection and retention of that data.

All of which means that no progress has been made almost a year since a White House review board advised the government to work out a plan to divest itself of this metadata. It's like a never-ending game of "hot potato" where no-one wants to claim responsibility for this contentious metadata even though nobody is able to stop playing the fool game.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]