The major National Security Agency surveillance reform bill currently under consideration in the Senate could “potentially” allow for even more spying on Americans’ phone calls, according to testimony from the upper chamber.
NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett confirmed during a Senate hearing late last week that the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which passed in the House last month, could give the signals intelligence agency greater access to millions of Americans’ cell phone records.
“Under the guise of further protecting privacy… the universe [of call records] will be exponentially larger than what the prior system was,” Virginia Democrat and Senate Intelligence Committee member Mark Warner said during the bill’s first committee hearing Thursday, according to the National Journal.
After initially collecting almost 100 percent of Americans’ phone records as of 2006, the agency’s threshold has since dropped to less than 30 percent as a result of an explosion in cellphone use, according to The Washington Post.
The version of the U.S.A. Freedom Act recently passed in the House could help the agency get back to its goal. Though the bill dismantles the agency’s massive database of phone records (including numbers and times for millions of calls), puts the data in the hands of providers and requires court approval to search, the bill also mandates that companies provide NSA with “technical assistance.”
Such assistance would allow the agency to obtain specific data on millions of cellphone records in a readable format quickly, minus some of the brute-force intelligence search and analysis work currently done under the agency’s formerly classified programs.
“Because of the technical-assistance provision, and because of the way they’re defining ‘call-detail records,’ they are able to get more metadata concerning mobile phones,” legislative analyst Mark Jaycox of the technology-focused privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation said.
Though the bill takes storage out of NSA’s hands, it potentially makes for a system allowing the agency to hone its collection and zero in on more relevant data that would otherwise be out of reach due to the limitations of current programs and sheer volume.
Warner also warned that the same provision could make NSA’s tracking of phone-based location data easier, and let it follow individuals’ movement more consistently and accurately.
“I think it would require the court to take a look at whether or not it was appropriate under the facts and circumstances of the request to provide location information as well as the call-data records,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said, alleging the agency would not collect bulk location data, and that it’s acquired court approval for such information in the past.
Despite Cole’s testimony, the signals intelligence agency has already confirmed it collected phone-location data in bulk as part of a secret 2010-2011 program, which was revealed in documents leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.