Director Of National Intelligence Hammers Final Official Nail Into Bulk Phone Records Program

from the will-still-need-six-to-nine-months-of-additional-hammering-though dept

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has issued a statement addressing the inevitable shutdown of the Section 215 bulk phone metadata program.

NSA has determined that analytic access to that historical metadata collected under Section 215 (any data collected before November 29, 2015) will cease on November 29, 2015. However, solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA FREEDOM Act, NSA will allow technical personnel to continue to have access to the historical metadata for an additional three months.

Caveats apply. Data will still be held as required by a handful of ongoing lawsuits. With the “bulk” part of the bulk records program shut down (but not completely), the government is obviously hoping for a speedy end to the litigation resulting from the Snowden leaks. That’s the other motivating factor behind this public statement that not only states an end date, but the additional restrictions past that point.

This is a pretty remarkable moment in the security v. privacy battle, but there are still reasons to be concerned. The bulk telephony metadata program has received a majority of the focus since Snowden’s initial leak and the NSA, at times, has seemed almost too willing to let this program act as a scapegoat for its multiple privacy-violating surveillance programs.

Not that there haven’t been seriously heated (and seriously misguided) arguments offered in support of this program, but if you take a close look at the history of the debate over Section 215, the most-spirited defenses have not been raised by the NSA, but by legislators and former intelligence officials. The program appears to have been sacrificed in order to prevent more intrusive surveillance programs from being subjected to more intense scrutiny.

And it’s not even the totality of what can be collected under Section 215. The statement from the ODNI specifically addresses only one kind of “tangible thing.”

The telephony metadata preserved solely because of preservation obligations in pending civil litigation will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations.

We don’t know what else is being collected in bulk under the PATRIOT Act provision — the same authority that expired this year and was replaced with the stipulations of the USA Freedom Act — but we know it’s more than just “telephony metadata.” “Tangible things” encompasses far more than phone metadata (“books, records, papers, documents, and other items”), but this statement — as well as arguments it’s made in court in support of the six-month wind-down period — only address phone records.

The Second Circuit Court found that the bulk collection of records under Section 215 was likely illegal. That opinion called into question anything collected under this authority, but the government here (and in its recent filing in the Second Circuit Court) acts as though the “illegal” collection activity is limited solely to phone records.

Other NSA programs are going to be far more useful in gathering data and intelligence than the collection of phone records. Phone calls may never go away entirely, but the shift to mobile communications (followed shortly thereafter by the shift to feature phones and smartphones) has made phone calls the least used feature on these devices. Messaging programs and social media platforms now carry the bulk of everyday communications. And the NSA has programs in place to sweep up these as well, whether as content or metadata. So, all of this focus on “telephony” only serves to obscure what else it may still collect with the revamped program, as well as everything else it does under much more secretive legal authorities.

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Comments on “Director Of National Intelligence Hammers Final Official Nail Into Bulk Phone Records Program”

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DannyB (profile) says:

The end of Bulk Data collection

Bulk Data Collection Program A will be discontinued on date X.

There is no such thing as Bulk Data Collection Program B which is classified and under a very different name. We can neither confirm nor deny nor snicker.

We can neither confirm nor deny that a Bulk Data Collection Program C is being planned along with a suitably clever new name.

Bulk Data Collection Program D will take a lesson from marketing and have a name that makes it sound good for you.

Happy Friendly Killer Drones
Golden Key Cryptography
Big Brother monitoring communications for your safety

Village Idiot (profile) says:

The more I learn about these programs and watch the intelligence community react, the more certain I am that much of what Snowden revealed was in fact a limited hangout propagated to protect the real assets.

Of what have we learned? Techniques and programs that are many years old and that have likely already been replaced. While we fight over the scraps left by the activities of the IC over the last decade, they are free to continue their current activities, largely unabated.

Welcome to the land of the free.

Violynne (profile) says:

I’m going to be quite frank:
Anyone who believes the NSA is going to stop bulk data collecting is a fool.

You can bet the NSA is wasting millions to ensure another Snowden never occurs, thus making it extremely difficult to prove otherwise.

The NSA already has the software. Does anyone expect the Guardian to walk in and destroy their computers?

Here’s a cookie to help the reality go down.

tqk (profile) says:

And, in other news ...

The Office of The Director of National Intelligence has a “tumblr” [sic] account!?! Why?!? Doesn’t the gov’t run its own websites? Maybe “” maybe (I’ve no idea whether that exists or not)? Why is ODNI posting press releases on commercial platforms? Was it posted to both that hypothetical ODNI website and “tumblr” [sic]? What happens when someone cracks “tumblr” [sic] and posts “We’re now officially at war with X!” Should I be expected to then go to their hypothetical website to confirm? I’m busy cringing under my desk, and you want me to distrust what “tumblr” [sic] is telling me? What good is it then for them to be using “tumblr” [sic] in the first place?!?

I’ve never even been to “tumblr” [sic] and always just assumed it’s where thirteen year olds post cat pics or tell their social networking clique what kind of sandwich they’re having. Do I need to check “tumblr” [sic] along with all the other stuff I check every morning to stay up to date on world events? !@#$!

Anonymous Coward says:

he knows full well that there is no need to worry. Cameron in the UK is falling over himself to become the king of surveillance organisers! and every thing he gains, he will get to the USA as swiftly as possible! doesn’t matter that he will be spying on his own people or on those of his partners nations in the EU, it will all go to NSA etc. however, when it comes to getting information the other direction, now that’s a different story!!

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