Mass surveillance

Privacy-Minded Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Stop NSA from Collecting Your Phone Records

The feds have allegedly abandoned the program. These four want to make sure it stays dead.

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National Security Agency
Jason Reed/REUTERS/Newscom

Four lawmakers with a strong record of opposing secret domestic surveillance are teaming up to try to kill the federal government's authority to collect our phone records.

Reps. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) and Zoe Lofgren (D–Calif.), joined by Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), have introduced the Ending Mass Collection of Americans' Phone Records Act in both the House and the Senate.

The bill would do exactly what the name says: It would snip out a section of law that has been used to justify and authorize mass collection of Americans' phone records—the metadata (who we're calling and when), not the conversations themselves.

This all follows reports earlier this month that after years of fighting over how much domestic surveillance power the National Security Agency (NSA) should have, it has quietly stopped trying to collect and access all of these phone records.

The change came as a bit of a surprise, as this was the surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden, and he fled to Russia and remains there to avoid criminal prosecution for disclosing this secret snooping. That the NSA might have stopped attempting to access all this metadata suggests that critics were right that it not only violated Americans' privacy but was not a particularly useful tool against terrorism.

But we don't really know for certain that NSA requests for phone metadata have actually stopped. And if they have, that doesn't mean the agency can't fire it back up. This bill is intended to ensure that the spies can't change their minds.

"After falsely insisting to Congress that this illegal surveillance program is carefully overseen and critical to national security, the government admitted last year that it had to delete years of records due to legal violations, and now it's been reported that the program has actually been shuttered for six months," Amash said in a prepared statement. "Getting rid of this program will vindicate Americans' rights and begin the process of making the broader Patriot Act reforms that are going to be necessary to address the law's serious constitutional flaws."

Following Snowden's revelations, these lawmakers successfully managed to force the sunset of part of the PATRIOT Act—Section 215—that had been used to justify this mass metadata collection. It was ultimately replaced with the USA Freedom Act, which allowed the collection, but in a more limited way and with additional oversight. The USA Freedom Act is going to sunset this year unless it's renewed, and this move is clearly meant to signal that lawmakers aren't going to just sit back and let it happen without a fight. Given now that there's evidence that the NSA has deliberately abandoned the powers provided by the USA Freedom Act and stopped accessing phone records, supporters of the surveillance state are going to have a harder time making the case that the law is even needed.

Bonus link: Before Snowden, way back in 1992, the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Adminstration embarked on a massive collection of Americans' phone records without warrants or judicial oversight—that time as part of the drug war. The man in charge: our current attorney general, William Barr.

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23 responses to “Privacy-Minded Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Stop NSA from Collecting Your Phone Records

  1. Even if they pass this law, I’d remain skeptical that the information wasn’t still being collected. The infrastructure is already in place, and who’s watching the watchers?

    I’ve heard people say that the FBI doesn’t keep records of every gun buyer who passes a background check, but even if there were such a law, I wouldn’t put much stock in that–for the same reason.

    The cost of collecting and maintaining that information will continue to fall over time, and if it wasn’t cost prohibitive before, it will become increasingly less so over time.

    The reason they didn’t collect and maintain this kind of information in the past wasn’t because it wasn’t legal. It was because it was technologically impossible and cost prohibitive. Close all the legal loopholes you want, but now that it’s technologically possible and inexpensive, the genie isn’t going back in the bottle.

    1. Who’s watching the watchers? In theory there’s an inspector general for the NSA and I guess Congress could also demand an independent audit. But then, who watches the IG?

    2. zero faith.

    3. But without the law you can be sure that they are collecting it and using it. I think additionally you’ll see more whistle blowers in the future especially if what the NSA is doing is in fact illegal. Those are the watchers that I’ll trust.

      1. I’m not against making it against the law. I just don’t think we can count on the law to protect us.

        They prosecute NSA employees for telling us that they’re violating the Constitution–to the point that they have to leave the country.

        The people who violate the Constitution are never charged with anything.

  2. seems like a no-brainer to me….which means it won’t pass

    1. Too many no-brainers already in Congress.

  3. Sorry but the only solution is to slowly reduce funding for these agencies, because otherwise they will just find new ways to oppress us. Instead Trump keeps increasing the budget. Usually that goes toward million-man-hour make-work projects like Benghazi-gate, Server-gate, and Collusion-gate. But there is no reason to expect the next one will be so innocuous.

  4. “”This bill is intended to ensure that the spies can’t change their minds.””

    Really? And how would they be held accountable. Congress is too chicken shit to hold the liars accountable. We already have proof of that.

  5. DEA don’t care

    http://techcrunch.com/2019/03/…..e-records/

  6. The NSA is literally a criminal organization.

  7. I’m sure the NSA would be happy to stop collecting all those phone records. They’ll just have a sub-contractor collect the records and a bunch of ex-NSA executives will get cushy “consultancy” jobs with the sub-contracting company. And the NSA will be able to look square in the American public’s eye and swear to God they don’t collect American’s phone records.

    1. “”They’ll just have a sub-contractor collect “‘

      Someone once argued me that there was too much information for the government to collect. I said what makes you think the government needs to collect it? They just need the keys to where it’s being stored now.

    2. This is kind of beside the point, isn’t it? This law has to do with cases where the NSA asks companies to provide the data.

      But according to Snowden, the NSA collects the data itself by means of direct access to servers, rather than asking for it to be provided, in an arrangement that allows the companies to honestly deny knowledge of any specific intercept.

      So this law doesn’t really address the way they get most of the data, just their cover story for how they come by it.

  8. A pessimistic point about this bill’s prospects: Neither Rep. Amash nor Sen. Paul is respected or liked much among Republicans, so Democrats likely will need to do the heavy lifting on this one.

    1. And there’s practically no chance of that, domestic spying has proven too useful to the Democratic party in the past.

      While not pissing off the intelligence services that have dirt on them is on the top of most Congressmen’s priorties.

  9. “Before Snowden, way back in 1992, the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Adminstration embarked on a massive collection of Americans’ phone records without warrants or judicial oversight?that time as part of the drug war. The man in charge: our current attorney general, William Barr.”

    I didn’t think Trump could find a way to appoint someone worse than the leprechaun but he did. [sigh]

  10. A simpler and better solution might be to simply cut the agency completely. I know all about the “nothing left to cut” mentality, but you have to start somewhere.

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  12. You can bet your bottom dollar on one thing, if they abandoned collecting phone metatdata it was because they already had something better. It wasn’t because they didn’t want that tool any more.

    The ratchet only turns in one direction – tighter.

    It is analogous to the superpowers giving up spy plane overflights. They didn’t do that because of some intrinsic opposition to spy planes. They did it because spy satellites made them redundant.

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