The National Security Agency (NSA) will destroy all the metadata it swept up from U.S. citizens while operating a secretive surveillance program first exposed in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced on Monday.
That amounts to five years of phone records, which the ODNI said would be expunged “as soon as possible”—though it seems that will not be before the program’s official November 29 expiration date.
“These records were collected in a manner that violates the law, the Constitution, and basic human dignity, but they are just a tiny sliver of the surveillance records the government is illegally gathering on millions of people.” —Tiffiniy Cheng, Fight for the Future
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In May, a federal appeals court ruled that the NSA’s bulk spying program was illegal. That decision paved the way for Congress to enact some small measure of surveillance reform by passing the USA Freedom Act and allowing the sunset of key provisions of the USA Patriot Act—particularly Section 215, which the NSA previously claimed gave it the right to conduct its metadata sweep.
Under the Patriot Act, the NSA was obligated to destroy all phone records after five years, but had free rein to conduct the dragnet which was first put into place after September 11, 2001. The USA Freedom Act requires the NSA to end its surveillance program within six months. Investigations have shown that the agency queried its metadata archives roughly 300 times a year to reference phone numbers allegedly tied to terrorism, even as the operation proved largely useless in detecting or thwarting terror plots.
As Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of the civil liberties group Fight for the Future, told Common Dreams: “These records were collected in a manner that violates the law, the Constitution, and basic human dignity, but they are just a tiny sliver of the surveillance records the government is illegally gathering on millions of people…. President [Barack] Obama should know better where the line between free speech and unchecked powers should be and know that he should immediately take executive action to curtail the twisted legal reasoning that the government uses as justification.”
ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo, who argued the ultimately successful case against the dragnet in front of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, told The Intercept on Monday that although the organization is “pleased that the NSA intends to purge the call records it has collected illegally… the devil may be in the details.”
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