Last year, Edward J. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor outlined the existence of a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. The secret call records program — known as the “215 Program”, after Section 215 of the Patriot Act  — was part of the secret surveillance program that President George W. Bush unilaterally put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2006, as part of a broader Bush administration effort to counteract terrorism, the Justice Department persuaded the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the FISA Court) to begin authorizing the program. It claimed that Section 215, which allows the F.B.I. to obtain court orders for business records deemed “relevant” to an investigation, could be interpreted as allowing the N.S.A. to systematically collect domestic calling records in bulk, as potentially relevant to some ongoing investigations. The government lauded the usefulness of the tool although it was unable to point to any thwarted terrorist attacks that would have been carried out if the program had not existed.

The details of the program exposed by Snowden created a great deal of debate and consternation nationally and internationally, with the Obama administration receiving a great deal of criticism for allowing such a wholesale intrusion on privacy rights. Shortly thereafter, President Obama decided to appoint a review group and an independent federal privacy watchdog to review the program. They both concluded that major changes to the program were needed; the latter also indicating that the bulk collection was illegal, rejecting the government’s Patriot Act interpretation.

Last week the Obama administration announced that it is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that — if approved by Congress — would stop the collection the information, known as metadata, which lists millions of phone calls made in the United States.

Under the new proposal, the government would have to get permission from the FISA Court to review data about the time and duration of telephone calls that it believes may be connected to terror attacks. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. The N.S.A. could still obtain specific records, but only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order. The new plan would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.

Although some have expressed concern over how the records would be handled by employees at the telephone companies who might be asked to search the data in response to a government request, it is expected that safeguards would be put in place to avoid breaches of privacy.

Most critics of the old bulk data collection program think that this new initiative is a step in the right direction on the protection of privacy rights, and a compromise that still allows the government important investigative tools while decreasing the opportunity for abuse.

2 thoughts on “ABOUT TIME, MR. PRESIDENT

  • April 21, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I personally think taking this step is necessary. However, I do understand what all the fuss is about. Keeping this a secret from us was and still is a direct breach of our privacy rights. The threat of employees breaching privacy rights can easily be taken care of, but will continue to be a huge argument going forward. With that being said, the citizens need to realize this isn’t to find out if you’re going out or where you’re going. The purpose is to track danger and terrorist attacks. The importance of being able to track an attack is that it can save several lives, and prevent danger in general. I’d rather my day to day conversations be heard, than have an unexpected event take a lot of lives.

  • April 24, 2014 at 9:04 am

    The fact that the government was listening into private calls was known long before Snowden went public with his story, although not supported by evidence. Therefore, I do not understand the fuzz about the revealing. Also, the fact that organizations like the NSA would need special court orders to obtain call records does not relieve me much. Take, for example, the police. If they want to search a house they normally obtain a warrant easily. So it will not be any different for the call records. Also, since the NSA has engaged in illegal activity already, what would prevent them from presenting a case to the judge with false information to obtain a court order?
    All in all, spying on the American people has been going on for a long time. Already in the times of the cold war the American government spied on its people to look for foreign agents. The only problem is that the populations now knows how their information is obtained and know that it is illegal. Obviously and understandably this causes and outrage, but the truth of the matter is, people want to be protected but they don’t want to know how.


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