NSA Shuts Down Its Phone Data Collection, So Now What?

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS-AP) -
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) responds to reporters’ questions as he leaves the Senate floor after making remarks on a rare working Sunday, on Capitol Hill, in Washington Sunday. (REUTERS/Mike Theiler)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) responds to reporters’ questions as he leaves the Senate floor after making remarks on a rare working Sunday, on Capitol Hill, in Washington Sunday. (REUTERS/Mike Theiler)

The National Security Agency shut off its massive collection of U.S. telephone records at 11:59 p.m. EDT Sunday, shortly after a rare weekend session in the Senate failed to craft a measure to extend the program. Senators moved forward with a House-passed bill that would reform the NSA’s surveillance program.

No solution was likely before Tuesday at the earliest, and the Republican lawmaker who helped trigger the gridlock took credit in a message to supporters that also sought donations to his presidential campaign.

“Yesterday, I forced the expiration of the NSA’s illegal spying program. Contribute $5 now to show your support,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Here’s what you need to know:

Q: What’s the NSA doing now?

A: The NSA can no longer collect and store records from Americans’ phone calls. The spy agency has locked down access to the billions of phone records it has archived on government servers. The NSA won’t delete the so-called metadata, however, but has installed monitoring software designed to set off alarms if government officials try to access the data. The records include the numbers called from each phone and the length of each call, but not the conversations.

Q: How would the new program work?

A: If the House bill becomes law, the NSA would be allowed to ask phone companies for call data on U.S. phones that may be linked to a known terrorist or terrorist group. Those requests would be vetted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates in secret. The NSA would no longer be able to vacuum up the phone records in bulk and would have to rely on phone companies to store the toll records themselves. Most companies keep the toll records for 18 months.

Q: When would that start?

A: The NSA would be given six months to transition to the new method of collecting phone records. In the meantime, the NSA would be allowed to temporarily restart its bulk collection program until the new method is up and running. Intelligence officials said that it would take them several days to restart bulk collection once the president signs the bill into law.

The Senate could vote on the bill, called the USA Freedom Act, as early as Tuesday.