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The NSA can’t seem to stop snooping on our phone call records

The NSA can’t seem to stop snooping on our phone call records
[Photo: John Tuesday/Unsplash]

The National Security Agency improperly collected information on people’s phone calls in October 2018, the American Civil Liberties said Wednesday, citing an NSA document it had received through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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It was apparently the second improper collection issue spotted in just six months, following a previously disclosed incident in February 2018 that led the agency to announce last summer it was purging some data. The NSA for years collected large quantities of data on people’s call histories from phone companies, although not audio of the calls themselves, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

“These documents further confirm that this surveillance program is beyond redemption and a privacy and civil liberties disaster,” said Patrick Toomey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, in a statement. “The NSA’s collection of Americans’ call records is too sweeping, the compliance problems too many, and evidence of the program’s value all but nonexistent. There is no justification for leaving this surveillance power in the NSA’s hands.”

The NSA has reportedly curbed the program, in part due to such errors, the Washington Post reports, although the secretive spy agency has never officially confirmed or denied that the program is shut down.

It’s unclear exactly what the issue discovered in October entailed or how many people’s call data was involved: The NSA document sent to the ACLU describes a communications provider producing call detail records not authorized by court order, but the details are largely redacted. The NSA initially “suspended the data flow from the provider” and later resumed collecting data after verifying the issue was fixed, according to the document, which was published online by the ACLU.

“The technical irregularities that led NSA to delete data last summer were identified and addressed,” an NSA spokesperson wrote to Fast Company. “Since that time, NSA identified additional data integrity and compliance concerns caused by the unique complexities of using company-generated business records for intelligence purposes. Those data integrity and compliance concerns have also been addressed and reported to NSA’s overseers, including the congressional oversight committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. We are not able to comment further on these concerns because they involve operational details of the program that remain classified.”

The October issue came after the NSA had said it had fixed the “root cause” of the earlier problem, according to the ACLU. The civil liberties group urged the House Judiciary Committee in a new letter to investigate the matter and make more details public.

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