The National Security Agency says that once its legal authority to conduct Section 215 bulk telephone surveillance ends on Nov. 29, its analysts no longer will be allowed to access the database that holds all of the collected Section 215 records.
In May, an appeals court ruled that bulk telephone metadata collection as performed by the NSA and FBI was not authorized by the Patriot Act. Section 215 of that act is the authority that those agencies have been using for years to collect metadata from carriers. That collection method was the first NSA program revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013 after he stole an unknown number of documents from the agency. Metadata refers to information such as originating and destination phone numbers, time of call, and other data.
“The district court held that § 215 of the PATRIOT Act impliedly precludes judicial review; that plaintiffs‐ appellants’ statutory claims regarding the scope of § 215 would in any event fail on the merits; and that § 215 does not violate the Fourth or First Amendments to the United States Constitution. We disagree in part, and hold that § 215 and the statutory scheme to which it relates do not preclude judicial review, and that the bulk telephone metadata program is not authorized by § 215,” the decision, handed down in May by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second District, says.
A few weeks later, on June 1, Section 215 expired after lawmakers failed to renew it. The NSA got a 180-day extension for the metadata program from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Monday that the agency will end its access to the database when that extension expires.
“NSA has determined that analytic access to that historical metadata collected under Section 215 (any data collected before November 29, 2015) will cease on November 29, 2015. However, solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA FREEDOM Act, NSA will allow technical personnel to continue to have access to the historical metadata for an additional three months,” a statement by the ODNI says.
There is one important caveat to the NSA ending access to the Section 215 data: the agency will retain the data indefinitely as a result of some pending lawsuits.
“Separately, NSA remains under a continuing legal obligation to preserve its bulk 215 telephony metadata collection until civil litigation regarding the program is resolved, or the relevant courts relieve NSA of such obligations,” the statement from the ODNI says.
“The telephony metadata preserved solely because of preservation obligations in pending civil litigation will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations.”
Despite all of the other revelations that have emerged from the Snowden documents, Section 215 collection has remained one of the more controversial programs run by the NSA. The collection of millions of phone records every month has enraged consumers, civil liberties groups, and some lawmakers. It eventually led to President Obama calling for the end of 215 surveillance, and the sunset of the Patriot Act provision.