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NSA Considered Ending Phone Spying Before Snowden Leaks

Friday, May 1st, 2015

As the heated debates and outrage about NSA’s surveillance programs continue unabated, it has now emerged that the spy agency actually mulled ending the bulk data collection of phone records a few months before Edward Snowden went public with his cache of documents. The agency’s top officials believed that the risks associated with continuing the program far outweighed the benefits that it was offering and even released a memo recommending shutting down of the program. However, despite this, the agency officials did nothing to stop the surveillance and as a result, the agency continues to spy on the private conversations of American citizens to this day.

The details regarding NSA’s internal discussions emerged recently thanks to yet another set of documents leaked by Snowden. The documents clearly show that while debating the pros and cons of the phone surveillance program, some NSA officials were clearly worried about the rising costs associated with the metadata collection of phone records and the outrage that the program could generate should its details ever got leaked to the public. Critics of the program even pointed out that it was not capturing details of the call made through mobile devices and was not effective in providing enough counter terrorism information.

The leaked documents also reveal that the proposal to shutter down the program was still being debated by the top managers of the intelligence agency and had not been sent to NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander for approval. However, a couple of senior NSA officials have suggested that Gen. Alexander would not have approved shutting down of the program even if recommended by other senior officials.

After Snowden leaked details about the agency’s spying programs, NSA faced a barrage of criticism from civil liberty advocates and the general population alike. Privacy activists have accused that bulk data collection of phone records provides the intelligence agencies with a roadmap of American citizens’ private activities. However, NSA has strongly defended the program and Gen. Alexander has even asserted that the program helps the FBI to identify domestic extremists by matching the call records against the known numbers of international terrorists.

While the NSA believes that the phone spying program is necessary to counter future terror plots, independent experts and even a Presidential task force have recommended shutting down the program saying that it posed significant privacy risks and did little to eliminate terror threats. The task force even suggested that the program could allow high-level officials from a future government to pluck private and sensitive information of millions of Americans.

In the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks, President Obama had proposed in January’ 2014 that the NSA should stop collecting phone records and get those details from phone companies who store them for as long as 18 months. However, since his proposal was not approved by the Congress, NSA continues to collect and store metadata details of the phone records under Section 215. Gen. Alexander said that he supported the President’s proposal as long as the government agencies were able to get the data from the phone companies in a timely manner. The details about NSA’s internal debates could prove crucial when the Congress reconvenes to decide the fate of the legislation which is due for renewal in June’ 2015.

May 1, 2015

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