NSA Decides It Wants To Hold Metadata Indefinitely, Asks FISA Court To Reverse Decision Telling It To Destroy Records

from the we-have-all-the-data,-now-we-have-all-the-time dept

A house set against itself cannot stand gets a win no matter who’s dealing the cards. As was noted earlier, the NSA’s metadata is currently integral to a series of lawsuits against the government. This fact prompted the DOJ to ask the FISA court to bend the minimization rules and extend the holding period from five years to “whenever.”

This was shot down by FISC judge Reggie Walton, who pointed out that the government’s argument was faulty on multiple levels. First of all, changing the stipulations of the minimization procedures put the entire metadata collection on shaky constitutional ground, seeing as it’s almost entirely composed of data on American citizens not currently the subject of NSA investigations. Secondly, the DOJ cited evidence preservation statutes that applied solely to private corporations, something that clearly doesn’t transfer directly to a government database composed of US citizens’ “business records.”

On March 10th, a contradictory decision was handed down by US District Court judge Jeffrey Wright, who declared the NSA was required to hold onto metadata relevant to ongoing lawsuits. This set up an interesting situation for the NSA, which would now have to decide whether it would rather have data with no expiration date or destroyed data that would never possibly appear in court.

The NSA has now shown its hand. In a motion filed Wednesday, the agency asked the FISA court to reverse its decision on destroying the held metadata. The filing refers to the temporary restraining order entered by Judge Jeffrey Wright which stipulates that the agency must hold onto the data until the cases are resolved. The NSA notes that it now is subject to two contradictory notices and is asking the FISA court to honor the other court’s decision.

I’m not exactly sure how the FISA court will respond to this. Walton made it pretty clear that he felt the government’s arguments were weak and jeopardized the minimal privacy protections surrounding the bulk records collections. Not only that, but presumably the FISA court’s authority supersedes a district court, considering it is the entity charged with directly supervising the collection and handling of the NSA’s bulk collections.

Well, no sooner had the ink dried on this post than FISC judge Reggie Walton delivered an opinion agreeing with the District Court’s order and will allow the NSA to retain the metadata associated with the two cases listed in Judge Jeffrey Wright’s order. Walton’s decision to reverse the FISC’s opinion hinges on these two specific cases, Jewel v. NSA and First Unitarian Church v. NSA. As he notes, the DOJ’s request to hold the data was based on common law rules normally applied to retention of corporate data in civil cases, something entirely unrelated to bulk surveillance metadata. Addiitonally, he points out that none of the plaintiffs in the cases the DOJ listed had requested the data be retained.

The Court concluded that any interests the civil plaintiffs might assert in preserving all of the BR metadata was “unsubstantiated” on that record. The Court further observed that no District Court or Circuit Court of Appeals has entered a preservation order applicable to the BR metadata in question in any of the civil matters cited in the motion. Further, there is no indication that any of the plaintiffs have sought discovery of this information or made any effort to have it preserved, despite it being a matter of public record that BR metadata is routinely destroyed after five years.

Beyond the legal issues is the NSA itself, which probably wouldn’t doesn’t mind being able to hold onto metadata indefinitely. (Of course, the FISC court limits this metadata to these two specific cases where the plaintiffs have requested the data be held. There’s a lot of plaintiffs in one of those cases [First Unitarian Church v. NSA], meaning a whole lot of records will be maintained.) There’s always the concern that this evidence will need to be presented in court, but if the past is any indicator, the admission of these records will be fought vigorously by the agency. As for the data the DOJ requested to be held? It will simply vanish into the ether upon expiration, keeping it out of the public eye forever.

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Comments on “NSA Decides It Wants To Hold Metadata Indefinitely, Asks FISA Court To Reverse Decision Telling It To Destroy Records”

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Ninja (profile) says:

will allow the NSA to retain the metadata associated with the two cases listed in Judge Jeffrey Wright’s order

Did I get it right or they’ll have to hold onto data specific to the case and not the whole bulk? Also, even if they keep only the evidence from cases under Wright, was that evidence collected with warrants? If not, are they still valid somehow? As much as I hate criminals getting away because of such “judicial technicalities” requiring warrants is a very important safeguard against abuse..

Lurker Keith says:

Re: Re:

I was under the impression these were lawsuits against the NSA for their illegal spying. The data to be held is evidence of the Government violating the Constitution, not [necessarily] crimes committed by citizens.

The DoJ not being the Plaintiff in these 2 cases furthers that impression.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bets on excessive retention?

Anyone want to bet that next the NSA will file a request to store all the would-expire data, not just the data relevant to the suits, on the grounds that it would be too hard (or perhaps an invasion of the subjects’ privacy!) to identify the data relevant to the suits from the rest of the data?

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