NSA Phone Surveillance Skyrockets to Alarming Levels


The National Security Agency is at the center of renewed privacy concerns in the wake of a report released Friday showing a marked increase in the number of phone and text records it collected last year.

As Reuters reported, the NSA kept tabs on about 534 million calls and texts involving Americans during 2017.

That total marks a more than threefold increase year over year within a revised system meant to reduce the overall collection of such data.

These records might contain information including phone numbers and call times, but reportedly do not include the contents of the communications.

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After former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked information in 2013 about a widespread program believed to have collected information from billions of phone communications, the NSA announced a new, more selective surveillance model in 2015.

In light of the recent report showing last year’s increased data collection, some of those pre-2015 concerns have resurfaced.

Digital privacy advocates like the Open Technology Institute’s Robyn Greene worry about what the increase might signal regarding the state of secret data collection by intelligence agencies.

“The intelligence community’s transparency has yet to extend to explaining dramatic increases in their collection,” she said.

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Some critics also pointed to a less dramatic increase in the number of foreign NSA targets tracked through a provision known as Section 702, which allows for internet surveillance without a warrant.

In its report, the NSA indicated that several factors contributed to what is likely an inflated overall total of monitored calls and texts. For example, the same recorded communication is counted multiple times if the agency receives it from more than one source.

“Additionally, this metric includes duplicates of unique identifiers — i.e., because the government lacks the technical ability to isolate unique identifiers, the statistic counts the number of records even if unique identifiers are repeated,” the agency reported.

The Hill spoke to a source within the intelligence community who provided additional possible explanations for the sharp spike in data collection.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokesman Tim Barrett said the number of calls and texts requiring surveillance is expected to “fluctuate from year to year” depending on the possible threats in any given year.

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An increase in 2017 is not evidence of a trend, he said, but the response to that year’s demands.

“The government has not altered the manner in which it uses its authority to obtain Call Detail Records pursuant to FISA,” he said. “Rather, the NSA has found that a number of factors may influence the number of Call Detail Records that NSA receives.”

Some of the increase is tied to details dictated outside of the agency.

“These factors include the number of Court-approved selection terms — like a phone number — that are used by the target; the way targets use those selection terms; the amount of historical data that providers retain; and the dynamics of the ever-changing telecommunications sector,” Barrett said.

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Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a wide range of newsrooms.
Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a variety of newsroom settings. After covering crime and other beats for newspapers and radio stations across the U.S., he served as managing editor at Western Journalism until 2017. He has also been a regular guest and guest host on several syndicated radio programs. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and son.
Texas Press Association, Best News Writing - 2012
Bachelor of Arts, Journalism - Averett University
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