The U.S. intelligence community collected more than 151 million records of Americans’ phone calls last year in spite of newly implemented measures limiting government surveillance, according to a new report.
About 151.2 million phone records involving Americans were amassed last year by the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported Tuesday.
The metadata, or “call detail records” as they’re known in the report, include details concerning calls of potential interest, such as the numbers dialed and the duration of communications involving terrorism suspects as well as their direct contacts.
Despite the impressive haul, however, officials defended the 151 million figure this week as a testament to the intelligence community’s adherence to the USA Freedom Act — recently implemented legislation intended to rein in government surveillance in the wake of its scope being revealed in 2013 by former contractor Edward Snowden’s unauthorized leaks.
Passed in 2015, the USA Freedom Act bans the NSA from collecting phone records in bulk as disclosed by Mr. Snowden and instead requires phone companies to keep that data until specifically sought by federal investigators. Wednesday’s ODNI report offers the first full accounting of the legislation’s impact since taking effect.
Taking into account the complete call histories of targets and their direct contacts — as well as duplicate data and other such inconsistencies — the government collected 151,230,968 call detail records during the 2016 calendar year under the USA Freedom Act, the report stated.
The report doesn’t state how many Americans were specifically affected, but that the government obtained search warrants to spy on a total of 42 terrorism suspects last year from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, the body in charge of authorizing spying against foreign targets.
The number of targets appears small “when compared to the very large number of call detail records generated by those targets,” Alex Joel, the ODNI’s chief civil liberties and privacy officer, told The New York Times Tuesday. “We believe the number of unique identifiers within those records is dramatically lower.”
Regardless, the NSA likely sucked up only a fraction of phone records last year compared with earlier estimates. In 2014, former President Obama’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said the NSA used existing authorities to collect potentially “billions of records per day with full knowledge that virtually all of them are irrelevant.”
Mr. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, exposed the bulk collection program and other surveillance endeavors in 2013. He was consequently charged with espionage and theft, but has avoided prosecution in the years since upon being granted asylum by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I think that Mr. Snowden raised some legitimate concerns,” Mr. Obama said prior to leaving office in January. “How he did it was something that did not follow the procedures and practices of our intelligence community.”