The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has recommended that the White House drop the phone surveillance program that collects information about millions of U.S. phone calls and text messages–or at least that’s what they want you to believe.
According to sources who spoke to the Wall Street Journal, the logistical and legal burdens of maintaining the program, which was set up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, outweigh any intelligence benefits it brings. The details of the sweeping surveillance system, which reportedly collected billions of records per day in its hunt for potential terrorists, were leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. While Snowden was forced into exile, Congress went on to pass the USA Freedom Act in 2015, which shrank the program to a few hundred million records per year.
As privacy watchers and (some) members of Congress started to pay attention to the legal implications of the program and its impact on Fourth Amendment rights and more, the NSA reportedly cut back on its use, apparently because of all those aggravating people whining about rights abuses. Earlier this year, Republican congressional national security adviser Luke Murry claimed that, due to compliance and technical issues, the NSA hadn’t even been using the system for six months.
It’s an interesting turn of events considering that, in the past, the NSA was pretty darned insistent that widespread data collection was vital to protecting national security. President Barack Obama’s former NSA director, Keith B. Alexander, once told the New York Times that “he saw no effective alternative to the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans.” Of course, the NSA may have just decided to outsource the program, or found new tech to do its surveillance.
While the NSA has made its formal recommendation to drop the program, ultimately it’s up to the White House whether to renew it or not.