At Long Last, NSA Finally Recommends Its Bulk Phone Collection Program Be Put Out Of Its Misery

from the DNR-please dept

Early last month, it appeared the NSA was ready to shut down its bulk phone records collection. The subject of the first Snowden leak was argued to be an essential part of the national security process, but as it underwent significant modifications, the NSA seemed willing to sacrifice a program of dwindling value to save its more intrusive collections.

This perhaps inadvertent revelation came via a podcast, which is just the way things are done these days. Appearing on the Lawfare podcast, national security advisor Luke Murry had this to say about the Section 215 phone records collection:

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.

NSA abandonware. That's one for the history books. This comment has now received official backup from the NSA, which has informed its oversight that it's not really interested in continuing this surveillance program.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has formally recommended that the White House drop the phone surveillance program that collects information about millions of US phone calls and text messages. The Wall Street Journal reports that people familiar with the matter say the logistical and legal burdens of maintaining the program outweigh any intelligence benefits it brings.

The program's alterations -- courtesy of the USA Freedom Act -- now require the NSA to provide reasonable, articulable suspicion prior to asking for records from phone companies. The phone companies simply return responsive records, rather than hand over call data on all calls to the agency for it to sort through at its leisure. The NSA claims "logistical and legal" issues make this program not worth continuing. Perhaps it's actually the evidentiary burden that's making this too much of a hassle -- more "legal" than "logistical."

Whatever the case, it's up to Congress to officially dump the program. The NSA may not be currently collecting anything, but its guidance could be ignored by non-national security experts on Capitol Hill who may be less willing to shitcan domestic surveillance programs.

In a recent interview, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "If we have technical problems or challenges that NSA has to take into account, that's okay... It's not something we easily shelve."

If the NSA wants to kill the program, it behooves Congress to preside over its funeral. The best eulogy for the mostly-useless program would be codification of its overdue mortal coil offloading.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bill that would end the National Security Agency's (NSA) mass collection of U.S. phone data.

The bill's introduction by a group of civil libertarian lawmakers comes weeks after a national security aide to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) revealed that the NSA has shuttered its call-detail records program.

The Ending Mass Collection of Americans’ Phone Records Act would end the program for good, taking away the NSA's authority to restart it. The bill was introduced by privacy hawks Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

It seems like an easy sale. The NSA isn't going to be pushing back on this one. The only opposition will be reps like Burr who seem to think they know national security better than the National Security Agency.

Filed Under: bulk surveillance, mass surveillance, metadata, nsa, phone records, richard burr, section 215, surveillance


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2019 @ 4:40am

    Horray!

    Now they're just trampling over all of your other rights.

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

  • icon
    Hugo S Cunningham (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 5:23am

    Foreign intelligence agencies can fill gap-- if they wish

    For counterterrorism, NSA can probably get the phone records they want from Chinese or other foreign intelligence agencies that share our opposition to that particular kind of terrorist. No legal red tape or legal hazards. On the other hand, if we wish to track a suspected Chinese espionage network, we are SOL.

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

  • icon
    rebrad (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 6:05am

    Don't Be Naive

    Best not to be naive. The only reason the NSA would publicly give up a program such as this is that they have a super secret program to replace it.

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

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 6:23am

      Re: Don't Be Naive

      The reason they have a super secret program to replace it is:

      1. the current program is no longer secret enough
      2. . . . which invites this strange notion of something called 'oversight'

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

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 6:22am

    Put out of its misery

    I think you mean:

    NSA Finally Recommends . . . Program Be Put Out Of OUR Misery

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

  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 7:06am

    Think about this....

    ...that program costs tens of millions every year on collection, storage, searching.

    Is the NSA going to give that money back?

    Hell no. They're going to spend it on other "projects" that have a much higher ROI than bulk data collection.

    And I doubt we'll see another Snowden to tell us about the new program.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2019 @ 7:10am

    An oddly lucid bill name

    Ending Mass Collection of Americans’ Phone Records Act

    This title is oddly lucid for Congress. I wonder what is hidden in that bill. Spending increases for the sponsor's favorite corporations? Payouts for families of Congressoids?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2019 @ 10:27am

    Great.......now only another god knows how many more amount of offences to go.......in that one department

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

  • identicon
    TRX, 1 May 2019 @ 10:33am

    A) they've finally admitted that they have no real way to analyze the flood of data in a timely fashion, and don't want to get caught out again like they did on 9/11

    or

    B) they'll still keep doing it, but they'll call it something else, likely some data-related term since almost all phone is VIOP somewhere along the way

    or

    C) they have no intention of stopping (and, for that matter, phone monitoring is part of their freakin' charter), and they're just running out some disinformatsya in the hope that their enemies are even dumber than they are

    or

    D) their hackers have come up with something so much better than phone tapping, tapping is now a waste of their time (not likely, but hey, might as well cover all the bases)

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2019 @ 5:32pm

    They get everything they could ever want from Google/Facebook/Amazon/etc anyway.

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

  • icon
    Darkness Of Course (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 6:54pm

    What to do, what to do

    Since many of the big cloud providers seemed interested in dealing with the government, maybe they would be interested in the data center from hell in Utah, aka Saratoga Springs, UT.

    Not like NSA needs it now. Best to check if the sweetheart water deal is on the table.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 May 2019 @ 10:57am

    If a US Tri-Letter spy agency is shutting down an old surveillance process willingly, then 5-will-get-you-50, that agency has a brand new and far better surveillance process already secretly in place and in use. That's history.

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


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