At midnight tonight, the National Security Agency (NSA) must stop its bulk collection of essentially all phone calls made in the United States.
The conclusion of the vast surveillance system comes as the result of the USA Freedom Act, which Congress passed back in June. At the time, the NSA was allotted 18o days to end its controversial practices and find new ways to keep Americans safe (that hopefully don't include spying on ordinary citizens). Now, the government agency is out of time, and the White House says that it has a less invasive process ready to replace the old program.
Though it's been two years since Snowden first brought the surveillance to public attention, the end of the program marks a considerable victory for privacy watchdog groups, who have long lambasted the government for what some considered an abuse of power. Now, should a certain phone number be deemed suspicious by government officials, they must make a specific request to the appropriate telephone company in order to retrieve the data. No longer will the NSA have its own records of this sort of information.
So you can relax maybe a little bit. The government now must actually suspect you of something before collecting information on you. One thing you don't have to worry about is that American intelligence will in any way be compromised by having to follow new procedures. Earlier this year, the conservative Washington Times summarized a Justice Department study on the prgroram, which had been justified under Section 215 of the original Patriot Act:
[The] report adds ammunition to…opponents [of bulk collection of phone records], with the inspector general concluding that no major cases have been broken by use of the Patriot Act's records-snooping provisions.
"The agents we interviewed did not identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders," the inspector general concluded.
So whaddya know? This Thanksgiving weekend really did present something for which to be grateful.
As Scott Shackford noted here when it passed in June, The USA Freedom Act isn't exactly the bee's knees when it comes to scaling back the surveillance state, but it represented a real if modest reduction in the government's ability to do whatever it wanted without serious review. Read about it here.
About a month ago, Reason TV talked with Edward Snowden's lawyer, Jesselyn Radack of ExposeFacts.org. Among the key takeaways: Characters such as Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, and Mitch McConnell, who both wanted to keep the bulk collection program intact and who have vilified Snowden for bringing his information to government officials, Radack stresses there are basically NO proper channels: