NSA collected Americans' phone records despite law change

Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act, better known as the USA Freedom Act, back in 2015 to more tightly regulate the NSA. That law limited the NSA to collecting phone data only on individuals and their contacts suspected of having ties to terrorism.

Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, has said that neither she nor other Obama officials used secret intelligence reports to spy on Trump associates for political purposes.

While the NSA chose not to disclose just how many Americans were caught in the agency's collection net, the 151 million records gathered likely represent a significant cutback in the program.

A report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) yesterday provides a sobering set of statistics on the breadth and depth of U.S. intelligence surveillance of targets both overseas and within the United States.

It's got to do with the "hops": for example, if a target phone number calls another phone number, that's one hop.

Because the 151 million would include multiple calls made to or from the same phone numbers, the number of people whose records were collected would be much smaller, U.S. officials said. Each query related to a single phone number counts separately.

While the transparency report does give the number of Americans "unmasked" upon request previous year, for the redactions meant to protect privacy to be removed, it doesn't give details about who asked for the names or why.

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Privacy groups have called FISA unconstitutional: it's a statute that "violates the Fourth Amendment because it permits the government to conduct large-scale warrantless surveillance of Americans' worldwide communications - communications in which Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy", the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says. The NSA also complied with requests from government officials to reveal the identities of 1,934 USA persons ensnared in the foreign surveillance.

Among those reasons is if the identity was necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or if the communication contained evidence of a crime and was being disseminated to law enforcement authorities.

Under other sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA can target Americans overseas if the agency first obtains a court order with probable cause.

The report said that on one occasion in 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtained information about an American in response to a search of Section 702 data meant to produce evidence of a crime not related to foreign intelligence.

The NSA is also planning to delete "the vast majority" of previously acquired "upstream" internet communications ASAP, it said. Dan Coats of IN called Section 702 the "crown jewels" of the intelligence establishment.

All this data's above and beyond what the government is legally required to give us, says the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

  • Megan Austin