Despite Congress limiting the NSA’s ability to collect vast swathes of call data from the American public in 2015, a new report has revealed that the NSA still collected 151 million domestic call records in 2016. The NSA only had warrants to collect metadata on 42 terrorism suspects in 2016, along with a small number from the previous year, but has continued its surveillance of American citizens, albeit on a smaller scale.
The revelation is contained in the annual report from the office of the director of national intelligence, which was intended to measure the impact of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, the very same law designed to limit the NSA’s ability to surveil Americans. That law limited the NSA to collecting phone data only on individuals and their contacts suspected of having ties to terrorism.
Critics of the USA Freedom Act had previously warned that it doesn’t do enough to block the NSA from collecting bulk phone records, and that mass surveillance is still possible. This is because the Freedom Act still allows cellular carriers to collect call metadata on a bulk scale, data which can then be accessed by the NSA through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) without requiring a warrant. The relevant section of the FISA is scheduled to expire at the end of 2017; Congress must now choose whether or not to reauthorize it.
As Reuters reports, “Privacy advocates have argued that Section 702 permits the NSA to spy on Internet and telephone communications of Americans without warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and that foreign intelligence could be used for domestic law enforcement purposes in a way that evades traditional legal requirements.”
Officials responded by claiming the 151 million records were a much lower number than would have been collected prior to the Snowden leaks. They also claimed that many of the records collected would have been from the same individuals, further reducing the total number of people surveilled.