Tons of ink – oceans, really – have been written in recent weeks about the NSA telephone snooping program, better known as Section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act.
That would be the section that the NSA used to justify collecting records of virtually every phone call made by almost all Americans since at least 2006; information on who you called, how long you spoke and when you made the call.
The daily dragnet is slowly coming to a halt since Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which ends mass collection of bulk phone data.
But here are three things that may have gotten lost in the buzz:
1. They really wanted to find you, too. It’s true that the NSA did not use its phone data for geolocation- using records to find out where a person was. But that may not have been for lack of interest. A declassified 2011 memo unearthed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation refers to both the Department of Justice and the secret court overseeing the NSA eavesdropping being apprised of an NSA trial run of a geolocation option. It never got past the sampling stage.
2. They were not immune to software snafus. In 2009, DOJ admitted to the secret FISA court that a newly installed software search system had allowed some of the agency’s worker bees to “utilize the phone records in a manner contrary to court order,” according to a federal oversight panel’s report.
We don’t exactly know what that contrary manner is, just as we don’t know the names of the “executive branch officials” who told the judge everything was just fine. We do know the judge was mightily ticked off and that NSA tried multiple times to patch its software- and failed. They finally just dumped out of it.
3. It was never just about phone records. When an appeals court last month ruled that Section 215 was unlawful, it also pointed out that the issue at stake wasn’t only the government’s right to gather up phone records of innocent Americans and keep them for years on end.
“If the government (argument) is correct,” the court wrote, ” it could use 215 to collect and store in bulk any other existing metadata available anywhere in the private sector, including …financial records, medical records, and electronic communications (including e‐mail and social media information) relating to all Americans.”
So that’s the three things we didn’t know.
As far as we know.