The NSA has formally been prohibited from collecting massive amounts of data about people's telephone conversations since 2015, when Congress passed a law banning the practice. But Congress didn't say that the spy agency couldn't use telephone data from firms like Verizon and AT&T, an oversight that gave the agency leeway to view and query the data without retaining it.
Under the 2015 law regulating the agency's conduct with regard to mass surveillance, the USA Freedom Act, the telecom firms would technically retain ownership of their databases, but the NSA could still have access to the data by querying it, the Washington Times reported Sunday.
"NSA is deleting the CDRs [i.e. call detail records] because several months ago, NSA analysts noted technical irregularities in some data received from telecommunications service providers. These irregularities also resulted in the production to NSA of some CDRs that NSA was not authorized to receive," the agency said June 28.
The NSA announcement stated that the data collected from the queries will be deleted. According to the agency, the data has only ever been metadata, or characteristics about phone calls such as length of conversation, and "do not include the contents of any calls." According to reports, data on some 685 million call records is being deleted.
It's not clear whether or not those 685 million records include all the queries performed by NSA analysts. US telecom firms cooperated with the NSA to provide the government agency with "direct access to their records in a private-public partnership, which led to over 530 million cell phone call and text messages being collected in 2017 alone," technologist and web developer Chris Garaffa told Sputnik News on Monday.
Privacy-minded activists saw the report of data deletion as evidence of NSA overreach. "This is a clear admission from the NSA that their program has been collecting more data than they have admitted publicly," Garaffa said.
Still, activists argue the NSA should do more than simply announce the data is being deleted, as making an announcement doesn't necessarily ensure the appropriate steps to delete the information are taken.
"In the immediate aftermath of this announcement, the NSA and telecom providers should publicly provide details on exactly what happened, what information was revealed, how it was used before being deleted, and independent confirmation that the information was in fact deleted," says Garaffa.
In March, the US Justice Department declined to prosecute former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for lying to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in March 2013. Clapper responded "no, sir" and "not wittingly" when asked if the NSA collected "any types of data at all" on millions of Americans. A few months later, in June 2013, information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that, to the contrary, the NSA was requiring Verizon to hand over records of each and every call happening over its telephone network, capturing information about US citizens and citizens of other countries alike.
Wyden criticized Clapper when the spy chief resigned in November 2016, saying that senior intelligence officials were on a "deception spree" regarding mass surveillance programs during Clapper's tenure and that top US officials "repeatedly misled the American people and even lied to them," The Hill reported.
Republicans in the US House of Representatives have hardly been more reserved in their criticisms of Clapper's conduct. Clapper later "admitted to lying to Congress and was unremorseful and flippant," Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) told the Washington Times in March.
Under the Justice Department's rules, perjury indictments must begin within five years of the infraction taking place. Since Clapper's infamous lie to Congress took place in March 2013, after March 2018 it became impossible for prosecutors to bring perjury case against him, according to the Washington Examiner.