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NSA Ends Phone Metadata Program, But Surveillance Reform Efforts Are Far From Over

“This is a victory for everyone who believes in protecting both American security and Americans’ constitutional rights.”

Image via Flickr user jeffschuler

Despite the last few years of anti-NSA and anti-surveillance sentiment, the National Security Agency’s phone-call metadata collection program ended fairly inconspicuously this past Saturday at 11:59 p.m. under the USA Freedom Act, passed by Congress in June. Phone companies will now hold on to the metadata and the NSA will have to apply for permission to access it on a case-by-case basis in a special court. Which is essentially what anti-surveillance activists and most of the American people wanted in the first place.

That the NSA terminated its bulk phone metadata program at all, as President Obama promised, is a minor miracle. Even before Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, we knew that the NSA was working with phone companies—AT&T, in particular—to gather call metadata like phone numbers and call duration. But Snowden’s leaks placed the agency’s actions in full view of the public, opening it up to domestic and global criticism, and ultimately bringing about reform that might not have otherwise occurred. The end of the phone metadata collection program is also being touted as vindication for Snowden and whistleblowers in general.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an internet freedom and anti-surveillance advocate, celebrated the shuttering of the NSA’s mass surveillance program.

“This is a victory for everyone who believes in protecting both American security and Americans’ constitutional rights,” Wyden said in an official statement. “Today the NSA is shutting down a mass surveillance program that needlessly violated the privacy of millions of Americans every day, without making our country any safer.”

“This program’s very existence was concealed from the American public for over a decade,” he added. “Across two administrations, senior officials from U.S. intelligence agencies and the Justice Department repeatedly made false and misleading statements that concealed the truth about what they were doing. These officials relied on a secret body of law to justify the mass surveillance of the American people.”

Wyden also gave credit to former senators Russ Feingold and Mark Udall for fighting tirelessly to end mass surveillance long before Snowden aired the government’s dirty laundry. He also noted that in his 15 years of service on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he’s had many reminders of the threat of terrorism, including the Paris and Mali attacks. But he’s also seen politicians exploit these types of tragedies by calling for a sacrifice of citizens’ liberty for the sake of security.

“I reject those calls,” Wyden said. “And as long as Americans continue to demand that their government protect both their security and their liberty, I am confident that our country can deal with these threats without sacrificing our most cherished rights and values.”

Interestingly, the politicians one might think would be most likely to fight for the NSA’s surveillance powers have been silent. Noted NSA advocate Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who labeled Edward Snowden a “traitor” back in 2013, has made no official statement on the end of the phone surveillance program. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who wanted to preserve the NSA program by weakening the USA Freedom Act, has also surprisingly not expressed any political outrage.

And yet, while Americans and the international community should enjoy this success, it’s worth noting that phone calls are a mere fraction of the electronic communications sent and received domestically and globally. These days, most people communicate via text, email, images, videos, and even audio messages. And the metadata produced by such electronic communications will not be impacted by the USA Freedom Act.

So it’s important to understand that while the phone metadata issue might be done, mass surveillance reform efforts are far from over.

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