The NSA relies on Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act to sweep up private data on millions of innocent Americans. Now is our chance to make crucial changes to the law.
For years, the government has relied on Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act for the legal authority to gain access to “business records” and other “tangible things” deemed “relevant” to an international terrorism, counterespionage, or foreign intelligence investigations. The National Security Agency justified one of the most invasive mass surveillance programs using an unreasonable and extremely broad interpretation of this provision. Now, Section 215 and other provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire on December 15, 2019. This is our chance to tell Congress that any reauthorization bill must include provisions that reform Section 215 and other surveillance authorities, ensure greater transparency, and put an end to the legal authority to operate the Call Detail Records (CDR) program.
Despite the fact Congress attempted to significantly narrow the CDR program in 2015, the NSA still went beyond the law on a number of occasions. In response, the NSA itself has said the program has been ended and the equipment decommissioned, yet the Trump administration still intends to push for a permanent reauthorization of this invasive authority. There is also very little transparency concerning the provision. For instance, it is still unclear what exactly constitutes a “business record” or other “tangible things.”
Telephone metadata, a record of who a person called and for how long, may not seem like overly personal information, but it’s capable of revealing much more about a caller than you realize. Patterns of who you call, when, and for how long is more than enough information to make inferences about deeply personal facts and the private relationships. Everyday people call their doctors, STD testing clinics, suicide prevention hotlines, and give tips to journalists— and the national security state should not be compiling hundreds of millions of records of these calls. Also, because the NSA is allowed to collect out to “two hops,” from the initial target— this means it can collect calling patterns for people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Now is our chance to end the legal authority for this unnecessary and invasive program. Tell your elected officials they should end the Call Detail Records program and they shouldn’t support any 215 reauthorization bill that does.
Reform 215: Facts
With just 11 surveillance targets in 2018, the NSA still collected 434,238,543 call records. This is because the NSA collects all call records for people within two “hops” of their original target— meaning that even if one of the contacts in your phone simply has a contact who is a target, some of your call records will be collected.
The USA Freedom Act, passed in 2015, directed the government to make all “significant” or “novel” decisions issued by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court public. However, the government has yet to define what makes a decision “significant” or “novel,” and since 2015, has only released a handful of opinions.
In the unlikely event that no reauthorization passes before December 15, 2019, Section 215 expires and the law reverts to a pre-Patriot Act provision from 1998, which allowed the government to collect only a narrow range of business records.
What people have said about 215:
“However, we conclude that the Section 215 program has shown minimal value in safeguarding the nation from terrorism. Based on the information provided to the Board, including classified briefings and documentation, we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”
—Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (regarding the bulk phone records program prior to 2015 amendments)
“The NSA’s sprawling phone records dragnet was born in secrecy, defended with lies and never stopped a single terrorist attack. Even after Congress acted in 2015, the program collect- ed over half a billion phone records in a single year. It’s time, finally, to put a stake in the heart of this unnecessary government surveillance program and start to restore some of Americans’ liberties.”
—Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)
"After falsely insisting to Congress that this illegal surveillance program is carefully overseen and critical to national security, the government admitted last year that it had to delete years of records due to legal violations, and now it’s been reported that the program has actually been shuttered for six months. Getting rid of this program will vindicate Americans’ rights and begin the process of making the broader PATRIOT Act reforms that are going to be necessary to address the law’s serious constitutional flaws.
—Representative Justin Amash (I-Michigan)
The Fourth Amendment safeguards liberty by protecting against government abuse of power. Indiscriminate collection of data about Americans is a dangerous tool in the hands of government. Members of Congress cannot continue to grant such broad discretion to secretive government agencies.
—Senator Mike Lee
If Congress knew what the NSA had in mind in the future immediately after 9/11, the Patriot Act never would have passed, and I never would have supported it. We have to have a balance of security and civil liberties.
—Representative Jim Sensenbrenner