arlier this year, the NSA — after a few months of hedging — finally mothballed its phone record collection program. The modified phone metadata collection had posed problems for the NSA since its remodeling with the enactment of the USA Freedom Act, which forced the NSA to ask telcos for specific records, rather than just demanding they hand over everythingon a rolling 90-day basis.
Whatever benefits this program provided to the NSA was apparently outweighed by the technical problems it created. After hinting at its impending death on a podcast of all things, the NSA made it (sort of) official in May, saying it didn’t see any reason to move forward with the collection, not after it had already been unofficially shut down for several months by that point.
The NSA may not need the phone records collection but it appears the FBI thinks it does. The easiest way for Congress to codify the program’s shut down would be to let it expire at the end of this year. FBI Director Chris Wray is hoping to prevent a do-nothing Congress from doing nothing and letting the clock run out on the metadata collection.
Wray’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Community asks legislators to flip the switch back to “ON.”
NSA’s decision to suspend the CDR program does not mean that Congress should allow the CDR authority to expire. Rather, that decision shows that the Executive Branch is a responsible steward of the authority Congress afforded it, and that the numerous constraints on the government imposed by the FREEDOM Act, including oversight by the FISC, are demanding and effective. As technology changes, our adversaries’ tradecraft and communications habits continue to evolve and adapt. In light of this dynamic environment, the administration supports reauthorization of the CDR provision so that the Government will retain this potentially valuable tool should it prove useful in the future.
Yeah, I know. He said the NSA is trustworthy. It isn’t, of course. And neither is the FBI for that matter. But the FBI feels strongly that the program the NSA can’t operate without violating the law might be useful at some point in the future for whatever reason. And the FBI wants this authorization to be permanent, so it doesn’t have to come down to the SSCI and make this pitch every half-decade. But “just in case” isn’t really a compelling reason to keep a questionable authority alive, much less forever.
It’s not the only thing the FBI wants permanently authorized. It wants the rest of the business records collection — the stuff that isn’t phone records (but IS bank records, hotel records, car rental records, apartment lease records, etc.) — permanently reauthorized. This gives the FBI and other members of the Intelligence Community (which now includes the CBP) warrantless access to a wealth of records our courts and Congresspeople haven’t declared worthy of Fourth Amendment protections.