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Why the NSA is destroying its historic telephone surveillance data

Since Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013, the National Security Agency, or NSA, has become a by-word for uncontrolled government surveillance, an Orwellian presence collecting information without remit or restriction.

Telephone and Internet records relating to more than a billion people worldwide were intercepted, with the majority of data collected under the Patriot Act, brought in following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

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The Patriot Act, however, has now expired and in its place the Freedom Act will look to curtail NSA surveillance, on the surface at least. However, the new act left the question of what to do with historic data collected under the previous programme unanswered. The NSA generally retains information for a period of five years and as data collected under the Patriot Act was “lawfully” acquired, it appeared unlikely that much action would be taken against existing records.

However, the Obama administration has now ruled that these records will be destroyed as soon as possible.

“The NSA has determined that analytic access to that historical metadata collected under Section 215 (any data collected before November 29, 2015) will cease on November 29, 2015,” explained the director of national intelligence James R. Clapper. “However, solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA FREEDOM Act, NSA will allow technical personnel to continue to have access to the historical metadata for an additional three months.”

Mr Clapper adds that the reason that records cannot be deleted immediately, is because they are being used as criminal evidence in a lawsuit against the NSA. However, pending the completion of the case and the passing of the November deadline, this historic data will be erased – welcome news, surely, for privacy campaigners?

While the removal of surveillance data is being largely welcomed, many remain sceptical about what tangible difference this will make to the NSA’s methods. Although it is true that without historic records the authorities will have to acquire information again from telephone companies, this is likely to be formality.

“There’s a potential reduction in capability that they are accepting under pressure,” said Steven Aftergood, who writes about intelligence and secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “Whatever intelligence and analytical value might reside in this data will be eliminated. It’s a political choice that they are making, and it shows that at the end of the day they are a law-abiding organization. They are not putting their intelligence interests above external control.”

But many have questioned just how significant this political pressure really is, considering that the Freedom Act has been criticised for not doing enough to curb government surveillance. The proposed passing of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) later this year, is being claimed as further evidence that what the NSA gives with one hand, it takes with the other. Essentially, by making superficial, public concessions like deleting historic data, it can carry on its surveillance with little change behind the scenes. The CISA bill, which aims to facilitate the sharing of information between companies and the government under broadly-defined “cybersecurity purposes,” is already being protested online.

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The concern amongst many privacy advocates is that the destruction of historic surveillance data is not the final nail in the coffin for the Patriot Act, but is simply a way of appeasing citizens angered by the Snowden revelations. Considering the continued efforts of the US government to introduce new legislation that threatens individual privacy, it seems that those concerns may well be justified.

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.