Yet again, the National Security Agency has been exposed for "accidentally overcollecting" call-record metadata of millions of Americans. According to a WSJ report that relied on documents obtained by the ACLU, the NSA received metadata records from an unnamed phone company that the agency hadn't been authorized to collect.
According to the report, it's unclear how the overcollection occurred, but the incident took place after the NSA said it had purged hundreds of millions of metadata records it had amassed since 2015 in a separate overcollection episode.
For those who aren't familiar with the concept, "Metadata" include the numbers called or texted and the associated time stamps, but not the contents of the conversation.
The documents didn't make clear how many records had been collected by the NSA since October. The NSA's media relations chief, Greg Julian, refused to comment on this specific episode, but referred to the prior overcollection episode - which resulted in the NSA deleting an entire database of collected metadata - where the NSA had collected information it hadn't been authorized to collect.
Essentially, the agency blamed the incident on service providers who incorrectly interpreted the NSA's request.
"While NSA lawfully sought data pertaining to a foreign power engaged in international terrorism, the provider produced inaccurate data and data beyond which NSA sought," Julian said.
The company began delivering those records to the NSA on Oct. 3, 2018 through Oct. 12, when the agency asked it investigate the “anomaly.”
Exposure of the incident has predictably provoked outrage from lawmakers, who have been railing against the NSA's surveillance programs since they were first exposed by former contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Former lawmaker Pat Toomey, now an ACLU staff attorney, said the incident is just the latest reason why the NSA metadata-collection program, launched in the aftermath of 9/11 as part of the Patriot Act, should be discontinued.
"These documents only confirm that this surveillance program is beyond redemption and should be shut down for good," Patrick Toomey, an ACLU staff attorney, said in a statement. "The NSA’s collection of Americans’ call records is too sweeping, the compliance problems too many, and evidence of the program’s value all but nonexistent. There is no justification for leaving this surveillance power in the NSA’s hands."
The House Judiciary Committee has already started weighing which expiring Patriot Act provisions will be renewed, and according to several lawmakers, the phone surveillance program likely won't be reauthorized.
"Every new incident like this that becomes public is another reason this massive surveillance program needs to be permanently scrapped," said Sen. Ron Wyden, a longtime critic of the program. "But it is unacceptable that basic information about the program is still being withheld from the public."