Privacy defenders in the Senate and House have introduced a bill to rein in NSA surveillance. Today, we’re urging you to contact your lawmakers to get them to cosponsor the Ending Mass Collection of Americans’ Phone Records Act (S. 936, H.R. 1942).
Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that the NSA was collecting the call detail records (“CDRs”) for every single call originating or ending in the US, using an authority passed after 9/11 called Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. CDRs include when the call was made, where the sender and recipient are, who it was to, and how long it lasted. As EFF points out, if they know you made a call to a suicide hotline at 1am, the NSA doesn’t really need the content of the call to intrude on your life. The NSA were collecting these records under “warrants” that made a mockery of the Fourth Amendment, that required ongoing production by phone carriers of all call metadata relating to every US user, renewing automatically every 90 days. They have never shown that any counter-terrorism effort was ever helped by collecting all US-US CDRs.
Vast as it is, the CDR program is not all that is authorized under Section 215, and is only a tiny corner of what the NSA is doing. As best as we can tell, data from this program, which relates only to US-US communications, is accessed only when the NSA needs to “back-fill” information it can’t get under more permissive authorities related to US-foreign communications (FAA Section 702) or foreign-foreign communications (EO 12,333), which both collect exabytes’ worth more data.
Back in 2015, in response to the Snowden revelations, Congress updated its Section 215 authorities, in the USA FREEDOM Act. This Act included new transparency measures, and required phone metadata to be stored by the phone companies and queried in smaller chunks by the NSA. However, the NSA has struggled to adapt to these new requirements. They have not complied with requests from Congress or the public to release information about how much metadata, on how many people, this program collected. They revealed earlier this year that they had still been collecting millions of records under this program that they weren’t legally authorized to obtain, and were having to purge their systems. Rather than deal with the hassle of fixing it, it seems as if NSA has stopped using the CDR program, are now ready to declare an end to it (under this authority), and intend to get most of what they need under their other, more permissive authorities.
This is a familiar game of surveillance whack-a-mole. NSA have snooped on us all, pretended to Congress that it was to prevent terrorism, lied about the scope of their surveillance, and lied about how important it was. They are not a trustworthy partner. Merely letting them declare an “end” to the program is not enough. They must be barred by statute from trying anything like this again, and the mass surveillance they’re still doing under other authorities must also end.
Alex Marthews is National Chair of Restore the Fourth. You can follow him on Twitter @rebelcinder.
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