The National Security Agency's days of openly collecting U.S. phone records in bulk have come to an end, at least for now. The agency was required by the USA Freedom Act to stop its whole scale phone metadata harvesting program and is now expected to request warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for specific individuals or groups.
NSA surveillance reach gets curbed
The NSA had been bulk collecting call data on everyone it could in the U.S. for years. With the USA Freedom Act in place, however, the agency was required to stop as of November 29th.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement saying,
While under the prior program NSA collected metadata in bulk and sought court approval for individual queries, the USA FREEDOM Act requires that the government must now base any application for telephone metadata records under FISA on a 'specific selection term'—a term that specifically identifies a person, account, address, or personal device in a way that limits the scope of information sought to the greatest extent reasonably practicable. This further ensures that collection of information for intelligence purposes is appropriately focused and targeted, and is limited to information that telephone service providers have historically used for their internal billing and operational needs.
That doesn't stop the NSA from collecting call records, but it does put some restrictions on how much it can gather. Considering the agency will be getting its warrants from the highly secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, however, means there won't be much public oversight on its data collection activities.
Even though there won't be much transparency surrounding the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price was optimistic about the outcome. He told Reuters, "The act struck a reasonable compromise which allows us to continue to protect the country while implementing various reforms."
And that begs the question: If this compromise is so reasonable, why wasn't it implemented in the first place instead of letting the NSA collect the data they wanted without warrants?
The new restrictions on the NSA's surveillance efforts have been seen as a victory for privacy, but the fight isn't over yet. Some Republicans are pushing to extend the NSA's unfettered phone data collection until 2017 citing terrorist threats including the recent attack in Paris where 130 people were killed.
Lawmakers hoping to reopen the NSA's door for mass data collection will most likely have to wait until after the November 2016 Presidential election, especially since a Presidential review committee reported that the surveillance program didn't produce any useful counter terrorism information.
The NSA will start purging its current database at some point after February 29, 2016, and after "expiration of its litigation preservation obligations."