In the first full year of the Trump administration, the National Security Agency really went all out in efforts to surveil Americans. According to a new report released Friday, the agency sucked up more than 534 million US phone records in 2017, three times the amount it collected in 2016.
The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed the agency has been undeterred in his pursuit of metadata from phone calls and text messages, which it gathers from telecommunications providers like Verizon and AT&T, even with the passage of laws in recent years designed to curb the invasive practice.
Metadata from collected from phone records do not reveal the content of a given conversation, but it tells the NSA basically everything else about the interaction. It reveals the phone numbers involved, the time contact is made, and how long a call was or how many characters were exchanged in text messages.
While it might not seem like much, metadata can be quite revealing. The information itself is supposedly anonymous, but it can easily be used to identify an individual. The information can also be paired with other publicly available information from social media and other sources to paint a surprisingly detailed picture of a person’s life.
The bulk collection of records from Americans comes despite the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which was intended to limit the agency’s domestic spying capabilities by requiring NSA agents and members of law enforcement to get a court order before collecting the metadata of people they believe to be suspicious.
In perhaps the least surprising twist of all time, the bill appears to have accomplished next to nothing. While the NSA did shut down one of its domestic spying programs as a result of the law—a program that systematically collected billions of records every day—it picked up the slack elsewhere with a number of other clandestine spying programs and legal justifications that allows the agency to cast a wide and indiscriminate net when collecting data.
Given the agency’s habit of occasionally misinterpreting the language of laws to serve its own ends, it’s quite possible the NSA found itself some wiggle room in the USA Freedom Act to continue its operations, though the government insists that isn’t the case. Timothy Barrett, a spokesman at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told Reuters the government “has not altered the manner in which it uses its authority to obtain call detail records.”
The agency also has the ability to collect records en masse with just a few requests. In 2017, the NSA obtained orders, as required by the USA Freedom Act, to target 40 individuals. The couple dozen authorizations allowed the agency to collect the more than 500 million call detail records from telecom providers, as the requests allow the NSA to access metadata from every single person a target has been in contact with.
In a statement to Reuters, Barrett said a number of factors are involved in determining the number of phone records that are collected year in and year out, including “the amount of historical data that providers retain” and “the dynamics of the ever-changing telecommunications sector.” Alex Joel, the NSA’s chief civil liberties officer, also told The New York Times changes in how telecom companies create and keep records contribute to the NSA’s collection efforts.
The message from government officials is basically this: as long as phone records exist, there will be ways for the NSA to acquire them.