The NSA Has Apparently Stopped the Domestic Surveillance Program Snowden Exposed

For years, security state advocates fought to maintain the authority to snoop on your phone records. Are they really giving up?


Edward Snowden
Friso Gentsch/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Should we be celebratory or suspicious that the federal government has apparently suspended its program of accessing Americans' phone records after years of public fighting for the authority to do so?

A quiet sort-of bombshell dropped over the weekend on the national security-focused podcast at Lawfare: The National Security Agency (NSA) appears to have given up on the mass collection and consulting of Americans' telephone metadata. That's the information about who we've been calling, how long, how frequently—pretty much everything but the contents of the calls themselves.

If true, this is quite the surprise: It has been close to six years since Edward Snowden risked arrest and prosecution, ultimately fleeing to Russia for sanctuary, all to reveal the existence of this program (and others). Following a massive public fight over how much information the NSA should be allowed to collect about Americans (its job is to track information about foreign governments and terrorists), President Barack Obama and Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which brought the previously secret program into the sunlight, but added some restrictions (they had to request records from telecom companies rather than just grabbing them for themselves) and a touch of oversight so that the NSA didn't have just full rein to traipse through our personal data. Even that oversight wasn't enough for privacy-minded lawmakers like Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who voted against its passage.

Last summer the NSA announced it was deleting millions of phone and text records it had been gathering that it wasn't supposed to have. This has been a recurring issue with the NSA's various tech surveillance efforts: Though the agency is trying to cast a wide net to keep track of potential terrorists, it's regularly getting records and data that even the NSA grasps it doesn't have the authority to collect or even look at.

But since then, according to Luke Murry, the National Security Adviser to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the NSA has stopped using this data collection system entirely, and even more surprising, it's now an open question as to whether Congress will even be asked to renew the USA Freedom Act, which expires at the end of the year.

This admission should be seen as remarkable, if it's true. The New York Times notes:

The disclosure that the program has apparently been shut down for months "changes the entire landscape of the debate," said Daniel Schuman, the policy director of Demand Progress, an advocacy group that focuses on civil liberties and government accountability.

Since "the sky hasn't fallen" without the program, he said, the intelligence community must make the case that reviving it is necessary — if, indeed, the National Security Agency thinks it is worth the effort to keep trying to make it work.

The phone records program had never thwarted a terrorist attack, a fact that emerged during the post-Snowden debate.

"If there is an ongoing program, even if we all have doubts about it, that's a very different political matter than if the program has actually stopped," Mr. Schuman said. "Then the question becomes, 'Why restart it?' rather than whether to turn it off."

Now, if the USA Freedom Act quietly sunsets, note that this doesn't in any way affect the NSA's ability to snoop on foreign targets in other countries, particularly suspected terrorists. That the NSA isn't even using this program just highlights what a massive lie it was when supporters of these surveillance authorities insisted that it was vital to protecting national security that the NSA have easy access to these records.

The Wall Street Journal observes that it's not really certain as of yet whether President Donald Trump's administration will allow the authorities to sunset or seek renewal. This fight may heat up again in the fall.

After years of covering these federal surveillance issues, I'm reluctant to predict what will happen here. Recall that in the midst of accusing the federal government of illegally snooping on him and his campaign staff as part of the investigation of Russia's attempts to meddle with the 2016 election, Trump at the same time renewed and expanded a section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments that allows secret, warrantless surveillance of Americans for certain types of crimes. Trump has made it clear that his concerns about the violation of privacy rights extends only to those in his orbit. Don't expect him to go to bat for your right to keep your phone records out of the government's hands.

And to be clear, the possible end of the USA Freedom Act doesn't mean the federal government doesn't have access to all sorts of tools needed to secretly snoop on you, or that your personal data isn't being collected in any number of ways you have little control over. Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted just yesterday how surveillance authorities granted under the PATRIOT Act to allegedly fight terrorism were used to investigate prostitution rings.

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  1. And we should trust the NSA today because…?

    1. Trump is the president.

  2. You cannot trust anything the government or the Lefty media says about this.

    The NSA, FBI, CIA, and other agencies have conspired to violate the Constitution and the 4th Amendment protection against search and seizure without a warrant as described in the 4A.

    Bush/Cheney started the ball rolling for these programs, Obama allowed them and expanded them, and Trump has kept them in place.

    To be fair, Trump might want to roll back that spying but he only fight one Deep State coup at a time.

    1. This. They’re discontinuing the old program only in the sense that they now have the substitute program up and running.

      1. The old program goes away when replaced by a better, stronger, faster, program that they will lie through their teeth about.

    2. Does the 4th amendment permit a state actor to pass on the request of a brother state actor to pry and snoop into the affairs of a private sector person?

      If you are truly committed to the text, any warrant, in order to be good, must be executed with the express written consent of the target. Any claim to the contrary reveals the inner totalitarian.

      1. The 4th is in the BOR. Therefore, any ambiguity must be resolved against those who wear the badges and those who wear the robes and those who are the parasite class.

        The amendment does not unambiguously declare that warrants may be issued by a party who happens to be employed by the party seeking the warrant. Had the framers and the ratifiers intended that to be the case, why didn’t they unequivocally provide as such?

        If the people are to be truly secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, it naturally follows that a search is unreasonable, per se, if the same is orchestrated by people employed by the same party.

        Hello, McMadison, can you spell conflict of interest?

  3. I’ll wait for confirmation from Snowden.

  4. He looks like the kind of guy that would shut down NORAD with a laptop just to prove it could be done.

    1. No, he looks more like the kind of guy who would shut down NORAD with a laptop in order to permit Santa to do his thing without being tracked.

      1. Out of curiosity, were you chuckling to yourself as you typed that?

        1. Yes.

  5. “Are they really giving up?”


  6. Also, anyone who uses that hand gesture should not be taken seriously.

    1. The “trying to get a booger off my forefinger” gesture?

      1. That is clearly a “grind the boogie in between your thumb and forefinger so it dries out so that you can wipe it off under a table or on a child or pet to get rid of the evidence” maneuver.

        1. You guys make it sound like an either/or.

    2. ‘One does not simply walk into the NSA’.

    3. So hand ventriloquism is a joke to you now?

    1. So the UK doesn’t know about VPN?

  7. China bans 23m from buying travel tickets as part of ‘social credit’ system

    At this rate, Communist China will implode soon, like the USSR did in 1989.

    1. Sounds like a wonderful black market opportunity.

      1. Did you actually rape chemjeff?

        1. Jeff jumped the shark a few days ago and claimed that child rapists should still be considered for asylum in the United States.

          1. Just to clarify for those who may be joining us late: You’re talking about the “real” Chemjeff, not Chemjeff the LLC.

          2. I think his broader point was how we treat asylum as a process has implications. His main point was, if we categorically deny asylum for bad people, then it sends the signal that those nation’s can abuse people freely as long as they’re criminals.

            1. Possibly, but it also implies that American asylum is a legitimate international court of appeals which it shouldn’t be. Bad people is vague and covers enough ground to be meaningless and he was incapable of defining it.

  8. NSA higher ups who had knowledge of this atrocity should still be held personally liable for infringing on the 4th amendment rights of every person in the US; “third party doctrine” or not. Figuring triple damages, then for every 1 minute of call they snooped on, they can spend 3 minutes locked up – consecutively.

    1. There is no mention of the third party doctrine in either the 4th amendment or the DOI.

      1. Yeah, that was sort of my point with that comment, I figured if I didn’t mention it, someone would start chanting “third party doctrine” as if it was a magic spell to make anything allowable.

    2. As the article clearly and accurately states, that program did not ‘snoop’ on minutes of calls. It snooped on who called who and for how long. So your sentence would be zero minutes, with no time off for good behavior.

      1. Right, as you point out, the meta-data will contain how long the call lasted. I don’t care if they were listening or not, the whole program is out of bounds. If they have someone they think needs checking out, they can get a warrant from some pushover judge; it sure doesn’t sound as if that’s too hard in a FISA court.

  9. Clearly they now have a much improved, and hopefully more secure, program in place.
    It is like the Russians agreeing to get rid of their next to oldest class of missiles. Generally it is because the cost of maintenance has gotten too high.

  10. So are they selling the billion dollar data center they built in Utah to presumably store all this data?

    1. That’s to electrically house our government’s “enemies files.”

      1. Well that is a relief. I can go back to being ignorant (as if I would stop) now that I know it is just our “enemies” files.

    2. No. We are housing the data from other nations there. They are doing the same for us. Just agree to allow other governments to spy on your people for you…then you can stay out of domestic legal issues.

  11. Should we be celebratory or suspicious that the federal government has apparently suspended its program of accessing Americans’ phone records after years of public fighting for the authority to do so?

    Both. Celebratory that they’ve (allegedly) stopped the phone meta-data collection program, but suspicious that they’ve replaced it with something even worse.

  12. Obama had the ball rolling on this.

  13. If you actually believe this then I have some oceanfront property in Colorado I’d like to sell you.

  14. Snowden tweet: i’ve cut waaay back on my online use. that momo shit is scary, bruh. #DnepropetrovskSafeHouse

  15. I get paid over $180 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I just got paid $ 8550 in my previous month It Sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it.
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