The NSA has been caught improperly collecting Americans’ phone data yet again, just months after a similar incident forced them to (supposedly) purge hundreds of millions of records captured without FISA authorization.
The agency unlawfully slurped up a “larger than expected” volume of call and text records from one US telecom provider under the metadata-collection program known as Section 215, according to a document obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union as part of its ongoing lawsuit against the agency. The heavily redacted file does not reveal which company was affected, or how many of its “call detail records” were illegally collected between October 3 and 12, 2018.
“These documents further confirm that this surveillance program is beyond redemption and a privacy and civil liberties disaster,” ACLU National Security Project staff attorney Patrick Toomey told the AP. “There is no justification for leaving this surveillance power in the NSA’s hands.”
Revealingly, the NSA in its own internal documents assesses the blunder’s “impact on national security or international relations” to be “none.” Critics of the program, formerly known as StellarWind, have pointed to its acknowledged failure to stop a single terror event – the agency’s official rationale for eavesdropping on 3 billion phone calls every day – as one of many reasons it should be scrapped.
The agency “will assess the scope of the civil liberties and privacy impact of this incident upon completion of the investigation,” the report promises, though an “initial assessment is that the impact was limited given the quick identification, purge processes, and lack of reporting.”
“Why is there no penalty? Why is there no consequence for doing this? This is illegal behavior – if it is illegal, what is the accountability for those who are collecting it?” journalist Ben Swann asked, referring to both the telecoms providing excess information and the government agency that has made at least three such “mistakes” in the last year.
“The NSA never outs themselves and admits ‘We made a mistake’ – it only comes to light when the ACLU or some group sues,” Swann told RT.
“If there is no accountability for those who continue to break the law – because that’s what they’re doing – then why would they ever stop doing that?”
The NSA is reportedly in favor of discontinuing Section 215 altogether, allowing congressional authorization to lapse when it expires at the end of 2019, though President Donald Trump has declared he wants to keep it running indefinitely.
While the documents received by the ACLU suggest previous rumors about the agency’s use of the program – a security adviser to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed the NSA hadn’t used it since June, the last time it was forced to purge millions of improperly-collected records – were false, former NSA chief William Binney confirms the agency is only letting it go because they have something much more sinister going on.
“There is no oversight of the upstream program,” Binney told RT, referring to an NSA program that collects not only phone records but emails, “chatter,” and “everything on the fiber optic network.” Upstream is “the major program that’s copying the collection of bulk data on everybody, not just in the United States but on the planet.”
The Ending Mass Collection of Americans’ Phone Records Act, a bipartisan bill to end NSA bulk collection of US phone data and prevent the agency from restarting it which was introduced in the Senate earlier this year, appears to have come a bit too late.