NSA tripled phone record surveillance, collected 534M records in 2017

A transparency report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed a significant spike in the NSA’s surveillance of call and text records.

NSA tripled phone record surveillance, collected 534M records in 2017
KAZ Vorpal (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The NSA gobbled up more than three times as many records of phone calls and text messages of Americans last year than it did in 2016, according to a transparency report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The fifth annual report (pdf), released May 4, revealed that the NSA collected 534 million call records of Americans in 2017. That’s up sharply from the 151 million records collected in 2016, which was the first full year after the USA Freedom Act surveillance rules kicked in.

Why the NSA tripled its domestic surveillance in 2017 was not explained, but ODNI spokesman Timothy Barrett told Reuters, “We expect this number to fluctuate from year to year.” He added that the NSA “has not altered the manner in which it uses its authority to obtain call detail records.”

The calls' detail records are obtained via U.S. telecommunication providers. They include the numbers and timestamp of calls or text messages, but not the actual content, as that is collected under FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).

The 534 million records isn’t the number of Americans whose phone records were collected, but the number of metadata records collected. It was suggested that the number included duplicates, as each record was counted separately even when the same record was received from different providers. For example, a call record would be generated by a Verizon customer making a call, as well as by an AT&T customer receiving the call.

It could also include different providers, depending upon which cellphone towers were used if a target were on the move. And the records would not be for just the target, but for every person with whom the target communicated via text or call.

Reuters was told:

The NSA has found that a number of factors may influence the amount of records collected, Barrett said. These included the number of court-approved selection terms, which could be a phone number of someone who is potentially the subject of an investigation, or the amount of historical information retained by phone service providers, Barrett said.

The report reads:

The NSA counts the number of U.S. person identifiers it approved to query the content of unminimized Section 702-acquired information. For example, if the NSA used U.S. person identifier “johndoe@XYZprovider” to query the content of Section 702-acquired information, the NSA would count it as one regardless of how many times the NSA used “johndoe@XYZprovider” to query its 702-acquired information.

The New York Times added that despite more than 534 million records collected, the government obtained orders for only 40 targets. After the records were collected, the NSA used 31,196 search terms to query the data — that’s up from 22,360 in 2016.

Warrantless Section 702 spying also increased

Patrick Toomey, ACLU staff attorney for the National Security Project, pointed out:

The number of targets subject to warrantless Section 702 spying also spiked to 129,080 individuals, groups, or entities. Toomey noted that was a 20 percent jump — which also makes it a record-setting spike.

Additionally, the report mentioned that the number of National Security Letters (NSL) issued by the FBI in 2017 was also slightly higher than in 2016. However, there was a big difference in the number of requests for information (ROI) contained within the NSLs. In 2016, 12,150 NSLs resulted in 24,801 ROIs. In 2017, the 12,762 NSLs resulted in 41,579 ROIs.

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