USA Today (6/3/15) had a five-column headline across the top of its front page:
NSA Data Collection Ended
That would be odd, since the National Security Agency exists to collect data; it’s unlikely that a $10 billion agency would simply stop everything it was doing.
What the headline means to say is that the NSA has ended what the story calls its “controversial bulk collection of the phone data of millions of Americans who have no ties to terrorism.” But that’s not really true either. For one thing, while the headline says that the phone data collection program has ended, the vote the headline is reporting actually restarted it. While the NSA says it ended the collection of bulk metadata at the end of May in accordance with a sunset provision in the original Patriot Act, the USA Freedom Act authorizes the the agency to begin collecting it again over what USA Today calls a six-month “wind down” period “to give the NSA and phone companies…time to switch over the data collection to the phone companies.”
And that points to a bigger problem with declaring that the NSA’s data collection has “ended”: The same data will still be collected, only it will be held in phone company computers rather than the NSA’s computers. The NSA will still have access to the data, only having to get an OK from the FISA court–a notorious rubberstamp that operates in secret. As NSA whistleblower J. Kirk Wiebe told FAIR, “It’s more of a psychological maneuver to make us all feel good than a true constraint.”
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Wiebe notes that the phone metadata collection program addressed by the USA Freedom Act is the tip of the iceberg as far as NSA data collection is concerned–pointing, for example, to Executive Order 12333, “collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning United States persons” when it is “obtained in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, international narcotics or international terrorism investigation” (Ars Technica, 8/27/14). This is used to capture vast amounts of US communication–not metadata, but the actual content of phone calls and emails–under the pretense that this surveillance of US citizens is “incidental” to the NSA’s legal mission of foreign surveillance. As Glenn Greenwald documents in his book Nowhere to Hide, the NSA is not kidding with its unofficial motto “Collect It All.”
While some civil liberties groups supported the USA Freedom Act as a modest step in the right direction, others were less sanguine. “The Senate just voted to reinstitute certain lapsed surveillance authorities — and that means that USA Freedom actually made Americans less free,” declared Demand Progress executive director David Segal, saying that the bill “does not end mass surveillance and could be interpreted by the Executive branch as authorizing activities the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has found to be unlawful.” He called on Congress “to achieve far-reaching, meaningful changes to surveillance programs, and…assert America’s strong commitment to constitutional rights.”
That’s not likely to happen, of course, so long as major news outlets are telling Americans that NSA data collection has “ended.”