Federal officials are claiming that after the National Security Agency reaches its six-month deadline and data collection is transferred to private phone companies, as provided by the USA Freedom Act, it will destroy the records of Americans’ metadata that have been archived over the last five years.
A statement released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Monday claimed that in transitioning from the Patriot Act to the USA Freedom Act, the NSA has determined that any metadata collected under the Patriot Act “will cease on November 29, 2015” when the NSA’s bulk collection is supposed to end.
The statement also noted that “solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA Freedom Act,” the NSA will allow technical personnel to continue to have access to the metadata for three months after the NSA’s collection ends.
The NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ metadata was ruled illegal by a federal appeals court on May 7. The ruling stated that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the NSA used as justification for the program, “cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it,” and therefore it “does not authorize the telephone metadata program.”
Despite attempts from some members of Congress to extend the Patriot Act as is, Section 215 expired on June 1, and after debate as to whether the U.S. government should have any kind of surveillance program collecting data from innocent Americans, it was replaced by the USA Freedom Act.
While advocates of the USA Freedom Act presented it as a way to curb the powers of the NSA by transferring the bulk collection Americans’ phone records to private companies, those in opposition noted that it wouldn’t end the government’s collection; it would only change the channels the government went through to collect Americans’ records.
After the NSA’s program expired on June 1, the Department of Justice submitted a request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, asking the Court to reinstate the NSA’s collection for the next six months, and to ignore the ruling from the Federal Appeal’s Court, which stated that NSA spying is illegal.
The statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that the FISA Court approved the Government’s application to resume the Section 215 bulk metadata collection on June 29.
“NSA remains under a continuing legal obligation to preserve its bulk 215 telephony metadata collection until civil litigation regarding the program is resolved, or the relevant courts relieve NSA of such obligations,” the statement claimed. “The telephony metadata preserved solely because of preservation obligations in pending civil litigation will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations.”
The Guardian noted that although the NSA’s data collection was initially presented as a way to fight terrorism, and the NSA probed the database “around 300 times a year against phone numbers suspected of being linked to terrorism,” the program was “not considered instrumental in detecting terror plots.”
ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo told The Intercept that while his organization is “pleased that the NSA intends to purge the call records it has collected illegally,” he is wary that “the devil may be in the details.”
The topic of the NSA’s bulk collection has drawn attention from GOP presidential candidates entering the 2016 election, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul who is against government surveillance altogether; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who called for full reauthorization of the Patriot Act; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush who fully supports the NSA’s surveillance program to “keep us safe”; and billionaire mogul Donald Trump who said that Edward Snowden, the man who revealed the NSA’s program in 2013, is a “traitor” and should be killed.