The 2015 Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act (USA FREEDOM Act) was supposed to limit the NSA’s collection of phone call records and other mass surveillance powers. However, since then, the agency has been able to sharply increase the amount of call records collected from 151 million records to 500 million.
USA FREEDOM Act
The USA FREEDOM Act was initially supposed to be at least a moderate reform to the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (PATRIOT Act). Civil liberties agencies such as the EFF, ACLU, and others have been supporting the bill since 2013, after intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden made his mass surveillance revelations.
However, by the time the USA Freedom Act was put up for a vote, the House and Senate committees in charge of shaping the legislation ahead of a vote had significantly watered down most of the intended reforms.
One of the major “wins” for the privacy activists at the time was that the law was supposed to drastically restrict NSA’s collection of phone records. In 2015, after the bill passed, the EFF said:
EFF has been in legal battles to stop the NSA’s mass Internet surveillance since January 2006. While the USA Freedom Act may have neutered the phone records surveillance program and provided much needed transparency to the secretive FISA Court overseeing the spying, it didn’t solve the broader digital surveillance problem. That’s still firmly on our agenda.
NSA Increases Call Records Collection
Despite the limits that were supposed to be put on the NSA, the agency seems to have found a way to drastically increase the number of collected phone records in its mass surveillance programs. The USA FREEDOM Act only requires the NSA to say how many records were collected, but it doesn’t require it to say how those numbers were collected or offer more transparency in general abouts its programs.
The collection of records from “foreigners” has also increased from 106,469 in 2016 to 129,080 in 2017 under the warrantless surveillance powers given by the FISA 702 section. Congress extended FISA earlier this year for another six years, until 2023.
Although, in theory, FISA 702 is supposed to target only foreigners, in practice the government uses the excuse that Americans’ data is collected “incidentally”. The section has long been criticized as allowing the NSA, and now also the FBI, DEA, DHS, and other civil law enforcement agencies to collect and then access the data of many Americans without first needing a warrant.