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Will There Be Any Difference in NSA Phone Collection?

By Peter Clarke, JD | Last updated on

For nearly 10 years, the NSA greedily collected American's phone records. This power is now drastically cut back by the USA Freedom Act. But will there be any real difference?

Here's the short answer: the difference may be negligible. Even though the NSA can no longer directly collect phone records, phone companies can still provide them based on their own policies. How closely the phone companies will work together with the NSA is still a matter of speculation.

Here is a general breakdown of the before and after:

Nonetheless, Senator Mitch McConnell is calling the USA Freedom Act "a significant weakening of the tools that were put in place in the wake of 9/11 to protect the country."

Phone Companies vs. the NSA

The NSA must stop collecting phone records, but phone companies will continue collections. In other words, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. will carry on with business as usual. These companies can give the NSA access to their records, but they don't have to do so voluntarily.

The extent to which phone companies collect data depends upon the company's own polices and also upon the FCC's requirements concerning telephone toll records. Otherwise, companies aren't required by law to collect phone data.

What if phone companies stop collecting data? Presumably they won't, but if they do, the White House will notify Congress of any changes, and Congress will alter its course accordingly.

In the meantime, the NSA will continue collecting phone data for the next six months.

What If the Phone Companies Don't Volunteer Records?

If phone companies don't provide their records to the National Security Agency, the records can still be obtained by the government through a request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The phone companies will be required to give up the records if the surveillance court says they must.

It's important to note that the NSA can't ask the surveillance court for expansive amounts of data. Instead, the agency will only be able to request small samples of data or data from specific individuals. In addition to this safeguard, House Rep. Jim Sensebrenner has promised that the USA Freedom Act will increase the transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

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