The White House is reportedly seeking to make a temporary surveillance law, that enabled the National Security Agency to collect cell phone metadata in bulk, permanent in December, even though the NSA has abandoned the program.
The Washington Post and Greenwich Time both report that the White House has been discussing plans to extend a 2015 revision to the USA Patriot Act, which allowed the NSA to collect “metadata” from Americans’ cell phones without warrants.
The program, revealed by then NSA-contractor Edward Snowden, was designed to help the NSA ferret out Americans who had contact with terror cells abroad, and collected basic information about millions of telephone calls made between Americans at home and abroad.
Snowden, of course, is now living in exile in Russia after revealing the metadata collection program, then known as PRISM, to journalists from the Guardian. Snowden had come into contact with information about the program while working for a string of defense contractors who either helped develop of administer the program.
At the time PRISM was revealed, the government contended that the metadata collection program did not require law enforcement to pursue individual warrants since the information gleaned from the program didn’t contain details of what was said in the calls themselves — just date, time, duration, and destination information. Several courts, over the years, have disagreed, chipping away at the program and the government’s self-given blanket permission to spy on American citizens, but only when the plaintiff has provided proof that they were the subject of a warrantless NSA wiretap.
Back in November of 2015, the NSA reportedly ended its collection of metadata under the law, and earlier this year, it was reported that the NSA was considering bringing the full program to a halt, after the program failed to yield any measurable results. Though the agency captured enough data to fill entire buildings full of servers, it’s not clear that the program ever yielded a single actionable intelligence item, and may have actually put privacy at risk.
In May of 2018, much of the NSA’s collected data was purged after officials realized that the program had collected additional information, beyond just metadata, much of which it was not authorized to receive, even under the provisions of the Patriot Act.
Although the program in question seems to have been a failure, the NSA reportedly wants the ability to restart the program in the future, if they come up with a better way of sorting through and storing the collected data, and the NSA wiretap program may be inseparable from the rest of the ironically named 2015 USA Freedom Act. If the full act isn’t renewed, some Members of Congress have warned that it could set national security operations back to what they were before the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks.
For its part, the White House says it is still undecided on the measure, and it has until after the summer to decide whether to actively pursue reauthorizing the program. The bill won’t be up until at least November.