A controversial NSA phone records program might be shutting down

Privacy news
2 mins
A phone with a magnifying glass showing a black void with NSA on the handle.

The National Security Agency (NSA) may be ending a program that analyzes the records of hundreds of millions of domestic calls and messages in the U.S.

A senior Republican congressional aide, Luke Murry, mentioned on the Lawfare podcast that the agency hadn’t used the program in months, making its renewal unlikely when it expires at the end of the year.

A ‘fundamentally flawed’ program

The phone metadata program, later known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act, passed in secret after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and required popular phone carriers to hand over logs of phone calls and text messages to the NSA without the need for a court order.

It was only in 2013 when Edward Snowden leaked evidence of the program’s existence that the government was forced to acknowledge this practice. The revelations eventually led to the passing of The Freedom Act, which altered and slowed the collection process but did not end it.

However, it seems that the system for analyzing this data may be put to bed at the end of this year, as the government “hasn’t actually been using it for the past six months,” according to Murry. Going further, Murry also referred to problems in the data, where “technical irregularities” led to the collection of unauthorized message logs (though the NSA later purged the data).

“I’m actually not certain that the administration will want to start [the phone records analysis] back up,” he added.

The NSA has yet to confirm that the program will close, but Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is already pushing to cement a permanent end to it, stating, “The NSA’s implementation of reforms to the phone records dragnet has been fundamentally flawed. In my view, the administration must permanently end the phone records program, and Congress should refuse to reauthorize it later this year.”

The NSA is still tracking you through other means

Unfortunately, the possible removal of one program would make but a small dent in the agency’s ability to listen in to its citizens.

There are still many other ways the NSA can spy on its citizens. The troubling backdoor loophole in Section 702 of FISA, for instance, also remains active, enabling mass surveillance programs such as PRISM and Upstream to collect billions of communication logs from both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens.

The NSA can also call on other states to harvest data on citizens. The so-called “14 Eyes” have varying data retention laws that enable them to snoop on each other’s citizens and share the collected data. The U.S. is not alone in its endeavor to surveil the masses.

Protect your data from government surveillance

The demise of Section 215 would be a good step forward, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said this would make our lives significantly more private. There are still many surveillance tools in place, from both the NSA and CIA, although there are ways to stop them from tracking you.


Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.