The NSA Appears To Have Shut Down Its Bulk Collection Of Phone Records

from the program-so-valuable-no-one-could-find-a-use-for-it dept

The program considered so "essential" NSA defenders said it couldn't even be slightly modified is apparently no longer in use. During a recent Lawfare podcast, national security advisor Luke Murry dropped a bit of a bombshell. Charlie Savage summarizes Murry's comments:

The National Security Agency has quietly shut down a system that analyzes logs of Americans’ domestic calls and texts, according to a senior Republican congressional aide, halting a program that has touched off disputes about privacy and the rule of law since the Sept. 11 attacks.

[...]

Mr. Murry brought up the pending expiration of the Freedom Act, but then disclosed that the Trump administration “hasn’t actually been using it for the past six months.”

“I’m actually not certain that the administration will want to start that back up,” Mr. Murry said.

Murry is referring to the Section 215 bulk data collection. Exposed by the Snowden leaks, Section 215 was modified by the USA Freedom Act, which went into effect June 2015. The biggest modification was where the records were stored. The NSA could no longer collect all phone records from providers and search through the data at its leisure. Instead, it had to provide telcos with lists of targeted numbers. The data remained in the hands of service providers, with the NSA only having access to suspicion-supported phone records.

The alterations to the Section 215 program resulted in the NSA purging a bunch of records that didn't fit the new parameters. The NSA finally let go of a few of its haystacks, conveniently destroying records integral to multiple lawsuits against the agency. The USA Freedom Act modifications -- combined with the NSA's long history of abusing its collection authorities -- seem to have made it impossible for the NSA to continue utilizing its phone records collection program.

The bulk records collection is now in the hands of telcos, resulting in a slimmed-down dataset the NSA didn't seem particularly enthused to have. Apparently the program is as useless as critics have said it is. The NSA has gone at least six months without asking for data via this authority. This program is due for renewal at the end of this year, but the comments made to Lawfare suggest the NSA may be content to let it expire.

Marcy Wheeler suggests a few underlying motivations for the NSA's abandonment of the Section 215 collection -- and one might be the Supreme Court's extension of Fourth Amendment protections to cell site location info.

[This] suggests that the problem with the records may not be the volume or the content turned over, but some problem created either by the specific language of the law or (more likely) the House Report on it or by the Carpenter decision. Carpenter came out on June 22, so technically after the NSA claims to have started deleting records on May 23. It also may be that the the NSA realized something was non-compliant with its collection just as it was submitting the 6th set of 180-day applications, and didn’t want to admit to the FISC that it had been breaking the law (which is precisely what happened in 2011 when the government deleted all its PRTT records).

Wheeler says the NSA may have been asking for location data as well to better track the phones it targeted. The IC may have seen the writing on the third-party wall following the Supreme Court's oral arguments in November 2017. This may account for its plug-pulling a month ahead of the decision's release.

Or it may be something far less respectful of the Constitution. It could be the NSA has found another way to collect this same data without having to run it by the newly-adversarial FISA court. As Wheeler points out, Section 215 may have been restricted but the powers granted by Executive Order 12333 continue to expand.

Whatever the real motivation, it appears the domestic surveillance program that never prevented a terrorist attack will continue to never prevent terrorist attacks. The upside is we may not be throwing any more tax dollars at a national security program that adds nothing to our nation's security.

Filed Under: bulk surveillance, ed snowden, mass surveillance, metadata, nsa, phone records, section 215


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  • identicon
    David, 6 Mar 2019 @ 11:29am

    That old joke

    "We are no longer collecting whatever under whatever program". Some misleading wording like that is the starter and the fine details making all the difference get lost in the first stages of the Chinese Whispers game commencing from there where everyone believes they are just reporting what they were told.

    They are probably now, thanks to new data centers and taps, collecting the complete content of all phone calls including metadata. So they don't need the metadata-only collection (covered by a different wildly misconstrued authorization) anymore.

    It's the old "we won't be picking your lock anymore" promise following the installation of a complete back door.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      ashwednesday, 6 Mar 2019 @ 12:35pm

      Re: Disinformation

      Yes.
      One must be pretty naive to believe this gossip about the NSA.

      Here we get a 4th-hand report somehow relayed from an anonymous source.

      And this mystery gossip merely suggests the NSA "shut down a system that analyzes logs" -- NOT that the NSA has ceased bulk collection of Americans' phone records/content.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2019 @ 8:07am

      Re: That old joke

      "Treadstone has been shutdown, it proved infeasable. Now, lets talk about this other program, Blackbrior."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Mar 2019 @ 1:01pm

    Sadly I've had my trust in the NSA violated so many times and so thoroughly in the past several years that I cannot trust an announcement like this has meaningfully limited the amount of personal information that the NSA gathers from U.S. citizens.

    Either the courts mandate it or I won't believe these announcements from the NSA have the tiniest bit of substance to them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Mar 2019 @ 1:59pm

    They had enough blackmail to ensure they got everything else

    Earlier programs allowed them to get enough dirt on future politicians that were not covered under the exclusion policies. Now they have so much power over the corrupt people in charge that they have access to the backbones of everyone's internet. Now they can backtrace who was where and which phone belongs to which person long after the fact with their phone, internet and satellite feeds.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    laminar flow (profile), 6 Mar 2019 @ 4:39pm

    Bridge For Sale!

    I believe the NSA as much as I believe Mark Zuckerberg saying that Facebook is going to become a "privacy-focused platform".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 6 Mar 2019 @ 5:09pm

      Re: Bridge For Sale!

      I believe the NSA as much as I believe Mark Zuckerberg saying that Facebook is going to become a "privacy-focused platform".

      Frankly, the latter is one I am perfectly willing to believe. It's like a fox stating that they are erecting a structure intended to become a "hen-focused platform". It's your own problem if you interpret that kind of statement in a manner not congruent with the worldview of the one stating it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 6 Mar 2019 @ 7:34pm

    My first thought was like the comments above, they're collecting it some other way. My next thought was, maybe they were listening to/reading the contents of what Americans were communicating to each other and realized ending the program would be for the best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Mar 2019 @ 11:44pm

    They still need to justify the Utah Data Center. I guess they can rent it out to Amazon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 7 Mar 2019 @ 12:36am

      Re:

      Do the numbers. The Utah Data Center never was justifiable just for phone records. Its capacities are far too large for that. They can retire the program collecting just phone records exactly because Utah is operative.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Shufflepants (profile), 7 Mar 2019 @ 8:26am

    Why do I get the feeling that the real reason that they shut this program down is because there's no point in monitoring phone calls anymore since the only ones using actual phone calls are Robocallers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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