Obama administration Plans to Overhaul NSA’s Phone Records Program

On Monday, March 24, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is planning to propose an overhaul of the National Security Agency’s phone records program. The new proposal requires that the NSA stop collecting data from phone companies, and get permission from a judge order to acquire specific records. Another bill being developed by the House Intelligence Committee “would have the court issue an overarching order authorizing the program, but allow the NSA to issue subpoenas for specific phone records without prior judicial approval.”

Currently, the NSA keeps “metadata,” phone call data that tracks the timing and destination of phone calls, for 5 years. While phone metadata does not collect any personal or content-specific details, it does collect the following: phone number of every caller, unique serial numbers of phones involved, time of call, duration of call, location of each participant, and telephone calling card numbers. In June 2013, it was revealed that the NSA was collecting telephone metadata from millions of Verizon customers under a secret court order. This revelation sparked outrage.

The new proposal requires that the NSA stop collecting data from phone companies, and get permission from a judge order to acquire specific records.

The government has argued that the use of metadata has been a “useful tool” against terrorism, but has not pointed to specific instances of terrorism that have been prevented. Defenders of these collection programs claim that the data does not reveal any sensitive information. At a news conference to explain the data collection, Senator Dianne Feinstein said it was “just metadata. There is no content involved.”

However, numerous studies have shown that metadata does, in fact, reveal numerous details about people’s lives. A Stanford University study that analyzed data from 546 volunteers found that the data reveals a great deal of sensitive information. Researchers identified “a cannabis cultivator, multiple sclerosis sufferer and a visit to an abortion clinic using nothing more than the timing and destination of their calls.”   

Privacy groups have fought against the collection of metadata, claiming that it invades citizens’ privacy. The director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center claims that it “exceed[s] legal authority and has not proved to be effective.” In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the privacy implications of metadata collection are much greater than the government makes them out to be, stating that the NSA can “mine that metadata to construct comprehensive pictures of our lives.” The planned overhaul of the NSA’s telephone metadata program will be a big step, but groups like the ACLU will likely have many more concerns regarding the NSA.