NSA gets ready to shut down Patriot Act phone-records program

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The ‘metadata’ program became a lightning rod for privacy activists, and now it’s shutting down.

The National Security Agency will stop indiscriminately sweeping up Americans’ phone records at midnight on Sunday.

Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in June to end the NSA‘s controversial bulk telephone-records program, which allowed the spy agency to vacuum up the details of Americans’ phone calls, including who called whom and for how long they spoke. At 11:59pm on Nov. 28, the government said in a statement Friday, the NSA will terminate the program.

The agency had carried out bulk metadata collection under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which Congress passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But a federal appeals court ruled in May that, contrary to the government’s assertions, that law never authorized the program.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA must get permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to ask phone companies for telephone metadata. It can only make those requests using what the government calls “specific selectors”—targeted pieces of information like an individual phone number associated with a suspect.

The NSA has asked the FISC to grant it continued access to older metadata records “solely for technical testing purposes.”

Following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced a bill to reverse the USA Freedom Act and revive Section 215, but that effort appears unlikely to succeed, given how much work would be needed to reverse the shutdown occurring late Saturday night.

Photo via Krystian Olszanski/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.