The National Security Agency has recommended the White House end the highly controversial mass phone surveillance program launched by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.
The Wall Street Journal reports the NSA quietly halted the program earlier this year amid widespread frustration over legal compliance issues. Sources who spoke to the Journal said the legal and logistical burdens of continuing the program outweigh its intelligence benefits.
The NSA mass phone surveillance program collected billions of communications records per day, with the agency’s stated goal being combating terrorism. However, in 2013, former NSA analyst turned whistleblower Edward Snowden began leaking documents detailing US government surveillance on a global scale. Metadata from countless billions of phone and electronic communications were collected, with targets of NSA spying including heads of state — including close US allies, as well as corporations, social media and gaming sites, and countless individuals, including American citizens.
Snowden, who has been charged in the US under the 1917 Espionage Act, went into exile after leaking the documents. He currently resides in Moscow. President Donald Trump has called for his execution.
In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, Congress passed and then-president Barack Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act, which was meant to curtail NSA spying. However, the agency continued to collect metadata in bulk, and phone and Internet companies retained customer data, which the NSA may access if it obtains a warrant from secretive courts set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Many critics blasted the USA Freedom Act. “[It] actually made Americans less free,” David Segal, executive director of the Internet freedom group Demand Progress, asserted. “It does not end mass surveillance and could be interpreted by the Executive branch as authorizing activities the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has found to be unlawful.”
Furthermore, in 2016 the Intercept reported that the NSA was exploring new foreign intelligence-gathering opportunities, focusing on exploitation of the Internet of Things and Internet-connected biomedical devices.
Snowden responded to the latest report by tweeting, “First they laugh at you, then they fight you, then… they admit you were right all along and maybe shouldn’t have been violating everyone’s rights in the first place?”