Seal of the FBI
Seal of the FBI - 
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Kai Ryssdal: When the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program was revealed a couple of years ago there was a good deal of speculation about whether or not phone companies were being paid by the government for their customer records. Nothing was ever confirmed one way or the other. But there's a twist on the story today.

The FBI has asked Congress for money to pay telecommunications companies to store customer data, just in case agents decide they need it.

>Marketplace's Steve Henn reports from Washington.

Steve Henn: The FBI's requested $5.3 million to pay telephone and Internet companies to store Americans' e-mail and phone records in a massive new database it calls the Telecommunications Data Collections Center.

Marc Rotenberg: The relationship over the last few years between the telephone companies and the government has become way too cozy. We've got too much information being disclosed with too little accountability.

Marc Rotenberg is executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog group in Washington.

Rotenberg: It's like saying to a company, "We want a shadow database that can be accessible by the government. That's not public information.

Rotenberg sees possibilities for abuse and the temptation to mine that data to find new terrorism suspects.

But John Miller at the FBI sees an invaluable crime-fighting tool.

John Miller: All you have to do is look back in the 9/11 case where the hijackers were on the ground, in some cases up to two years, before the plot was launched and say, "Wouldn't it have been valuable had that plot been uncovered to identify the other hijackers by figuring out who had been in touch with whom.

Miller says that the FBI would use information in the proposed Telecommunications Data Center the same way it handles business records in thousands of investigations every day. That data would still belong to the telecom providers and the FBI would still need to get a subpoena or write a National Security letter before it could get at the records.

The only difference, according to Miller, is that using the proposed database companies could provide the FBI with data in minutes, instead of spending weeks digging through old files.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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