NSA Purging Millions of Improperly Collected Call Records Is Important (and Not About Trump)

The USA Freedom Act was supposed to reduce unwarranted access to our personal data. That's not what happened.


NSA Chip
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The National Security Agency (NSA) has announced that it is deleting millions of phone and text records it has gathered since 2015, because it is holding a bunch of records it was not supposed to have.

Such discoveries are not unusual (which itself should be more of an outrage). The NSA previously stopped an entire type of record collection and retention (communications that were "about" a person of interest to the NSA) because the agency was getting its hands on private communication data it was not authorize to receive.

In this case, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015 to better control (and potentially limit) the NSA's access to the metadata (that is, everything but the conversations' actual content) of Americans' communications. This reform was part of a backlash against the mass surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden, and the bill was passed after some privacy-minded lawmakers, such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), forced a part of the Patriot Act to expire that was being used to justify mass amounts of domestic snooping.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA no longer collects and combs through our communications metadata itself. Instead it now has to request records from telecommunications companies using strictly defined search terms. No more fishing expeditions. Allegedly.

The problem, as Charlie Savage of The New York Times uncovered, is that the telecom companies were accidentally sending too many records in response to NSA requests. And so the agency was receiving private personal information about Americans' communications data that it neither asked for nor had the right to examine:

As a result, when the agency then fed those phone numbers back to the telecoms to get the communications logs of all of the people who had been in contact with its targets, the agency also gathered some data of people unconnected to the targets. The National Security Agency had no authority to collect their information.

"If the first information was incorrect, even though on its face it looked like any other number, then when we fed that back out, by definition we'd get records back on the second hop that we did not have authority to collect," [an NSA spokesman] said.

This is a problem, and we don't know how extensive it is as yet. The NSA requested more than 500 million telecom records just last year. It is unable to determine which records it has the authorization to collect, so it is purging all of them.

Earlier today, President Donald Trump weighed in with a tweet, unfortunately making it about himself:

This is not about Trump and it's not about whether the FBI was appropriate or inappropriate in its surveillance and investigations of his former staff and their alleged ties to Russia. It's about you and me and the government's access to our private information and its poor management of this information. It may well be a disgrace. But it's not part of the "Witch Hunt" that Trump believes is happening.

Trumpifying this NSA surveillance situation is a problem, because the environment of political polarization will inevitably lead to a situation where politically engaged people care only about how it affects Trump. Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez rightfully tweeted out a worry that the response by the media could be to claim that this isn't really a big deal since it doesn't actually connect to the president. That would mean ignoring its effects on our own privacy.

Many of the same privacy-minded lawmakers who managed to force some of the surveillance authorities of the Patriot Act to expire also opposed the USA Freedom Act. Congressmen like Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) voted against the bill because they believed it still gave the government too much power to collect our records without warrants. Sen. Paul rejected the USA Freedom Act for the same reason. He tweeted this response to Trump today:

Unfortunately, Trump has shown that he's perfectly fine with snooping on Americans without a warrant as long as those Americans aren't his buddies. He happily signed a bill in January renewing and expanding the government's authority to secretly spy on Americans under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments.