NSA to Purge Database of Phone Records Collected Under Mass Surveillance

“As soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations.”

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as seen from the air, January 29, 2010. 
National Journal
July 27, 2015, 11 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency will purge all phone data col­lec­ted dur­ing the op­er­a­tion of its ex­pir­ing bulk sur­veil­lance pro­gram by the start of next year pending on­go­ing lit­ig­a­tion, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced Monday.

“As soon as pos­sible, NSA will des­troy the Sec­tion 215 bulk tele­phony metadata upon ex­pir­a­tion of its lit­ig­a­tion pre­ser­va­tion ob­lig­a­tions,” the Of­fice of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence, re­fer­ring to a pro­vi­sion of the Pat­ri­ot Act, said in a state­ment. “Ana­lyt­ic ac­cess” to those re­cords, which go back five years, will end Nov. 29, and they will be des­troyed three months later.

The de­cision comes as a vic­tory for pri­vacy ad­voc­ates, who wor­ried that the wind­ing down of the mass sur­veil­lance pro­gram un­der a re­form law en­acted earli­er this year could have al­lowed the NSA to con­tin­ue to ac­cess phone re­cords it already had col­lec­ted. The phone drag­net was the first and most con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram ex­posed by Ed­ward Snowden two years ago.

Last month, the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court re­vived the pro­gram after it briefly lapsed amid a stan­doff on Cap­it­ol Hill in­volving the re­new­al of lapsed spy­ing pro­vi­sions of the Pat­ri­ot Act. The court said the June en­act­ment of the NSA re­form meas­ure known as the USA Free­dom Act al­lowed for a six-month “trans­ition peri­od” un­der which the NSA could con­tin­ue its bulk col­lec­tion.

On Nov. 29, the NSA will switch to a more lim­ited sys­tem un­der which ana­lysts can re­quest phone metadata — the num­bers and dur­a­tion of calls but not their con­tents — from phone com­pan­ies on an as-needed basis. At the same time, ac­cord­ing to Monday’s state­ment, ac­cess to pre­vi­ously col­lec­ted re­cords also will cease.

But there are caveats. The gov­ern­ment said it would al­low “tech­nic­al per­son­nel” ac­cess to the his­tor­ic metadata for an ad­di­tion­al three months after the six-month trans­ition ends — a grace peri­od to be used “solely for data-in­teg­rity pur­poses to veri­fy the re­cords pro­duced un­der the new tar­geted pro­duc­tion au­thor­ized by the USA Free­dom Act.”

But the ODNI also cau­tioned that it had a leg­al ob­lig­a­tion to pre­serve the data it already col­lec­ted due to on­go­ing lit­ig­a­tion. Though it did not spe­cify which cases, the state­ment ap­pears to refer to cases brought for­ward by the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion that have claimed that the bulk-sur­veil­lance pro­gram was un­con­sti­tu­tion­al and not stat­utor­ily au­thor­ized.

It is un­clear if there may be any ex­cep­tions to the data pur­ging, or if any re­cords could po­ten­tially be pre­served in an­oth­er gov­ern­ment agency. The White House re­ferred ad­di­tion­al ques­tions to the NSA, which did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

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