The New York Times reported that the Trump administration wants Section 215, the legal authority that allows the National Security Agency to collect Americans’ telephone records, renewed indefinitely. That’s despite earlier reports the NSA had shuttered its Call Details Record (CDR) Program because it ran afoul of the law, violated the privacy of scores of Americans, and reportedly failed to produce useful intelligence. In a letter to Congress, outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats argued for permanently reauthorizing the legal authority, which also allows the government to collect a vast array of “tangible things” in national security investigations, as well as other provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire in December.
For years, the government relied on Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act to conduct a dragnet surveillance program that collected billions of phone records documenting who a person called and for how long they called them—more than enough information for analysts to infer very personal details about a person, including who they have relationships with, and the private nature of those relationships.
In 2015, a federal appeals court held that NSA’s interpretation of Section 215 to conduct this surveillance dragnet was “unprecedented and unwarranted.” Despite the passage of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which gave the government more limited authority to conduct the CDR program, the government continued to collect hundreds of millions of records. And in 2018, the NSA was compelled to delete millions of records after it learned that some of the data had been collected from phone service providers without legal authority or authorization.
If the program does not help ensure the safety of Americans, cannot stay within the law, and violates our privacy, then why should Congress reauthorize it? After all, as of now, the NSA isn’t even using it.
This December, rather than permanently renew the authorization that allows the NSA to use an invasive program, it’s important that we push Congress to end the Call Details Record program once and for all and enact other important reforms.