NSA Phone Surveillance Program Going Offline

A controversial surveillance program that collects and analyzes Americans’ phone calls and texts could soon be permanently shut down. 

News the program was offline surfaced during a podcast and was picked up by The New York Times on March 4th.

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“The Administration actually hasn’t been using it for the past six months because of problems with ways in which that information was collected,” says congressional aide Luke Murry. “I’m actually not certain the Administration will want to start that backup.”

The NSA has declined to comment on Murry’s statements. 

The surveillance program was put into place during the George W. Bush Administration to help the government track down terrorists; it was exposed to the public in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The exposure sparked a public debate that ended in 2015 with the passage of the USA Freedom Act. The program was then reworked to end the mass collection of phone data while preserving the program’s analytical abilities.

The new system allowed the agency to access phone records on a case-by-case basis with permission of a judge (a method it used to obtain data on millions of Americans).

Last year, the NSA decided to purge its entire database after reporting that “technical irregularities” had caused the system to collect millions of records it had no legal authority to collect.
With the controversial program set to expire at the end of 2019, it will be up to Congress whether to renew its legal authority.

“If there is an ongoing program, even if we all have doubts about it, that’s a very different political matter than if the program has actually stopped,” says Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress (an advocacy group that focuses on government accountability and civil liberties).

Since “the sky hasn’t fallen” without the program running, the burden to push for renewal now falls on the NSA, notes Schuman. 

At this time it remains unclear whether the Trump Administration would be willing to cancel a program that the NSA has long insisted is vital to national security. But as critics have pointed out, the system has never helped the NSA track down a terrorist or foil an attack. 

“It seems clear to me that this is not a program that is needed for national security,” says ACLU official Neema Singh Guliani. “One of the goals of the Freedom Act was to limit large-scale collection, and I think there are questions as to whether that law is achieving its goals.”

Editor’s note:  This is a massive step in the right direction if it comes to pass. Shows me that the Trump Administration, whether on purpose or by accident, is moving in the right direction on a crucial issue.