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Section 215 Bulk Telephony Metadata Collection Program: Is the end in sight?

By Schawn-Paul Rotella


Earlier this year President Obama announced his intention to end the government’s Bulk Telephony Metadata Collection Program. In its stead, the program will have the government’s responsibilities handed over to the telephone companies that operate inside of the United States. Here is how Section 215 is currently used: the government will accrue the data in bulk and use it as they see fit. This data will include the duration of the call, the recipient of the call, and a unique serial number. There is potential for the location of the caller to be included as well. Nearly all of the data that is collected is run through computer programs. In most instances the data is sent through several different algorithms that analyze the data to pick out patterns that seem suspicious or require further inspection. From there the suspicious data could be used to react to behavior that may be indicative of terrorism or some other national threat. It is important to note, however, that while the government is “watching” telephone users, it doesn’t know who they are unless they give the data a much closer inspection. Such an inspection would be time consuming and expensive. Most of the data is screened out and stored through the use of algorithms with no name attached to the data. That does not mean, however, that there won’t be a name attached to it in the future if there is a link between one’s telephony data and a suspect’s data.


The new plan would remove the bulk-data storage that the government currently employs. According to the White House, “The government will not collect these telephone records in bulk; rather, the records would remain at the telephone companies for the length of time they currently do today.” Currently, the government may hold on to the data collection for 5 years. Under the new plan, phone companies would be required to only hold the data for 18 months. The White House asserts that this will add another layer of privacy to the data that they collect from telephone users. Under the new plan, “the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns.” After a judge signs off, the government will only have access to the data for a set amount of time before it must return it. The changes, the White House argues, will increase the level of privacy afforded to citizens who use telephones and still meet the security demands that the original Section 215 was created to satisfy. This plan, while proposed, has not been taken to the legislature yet. Section 215 is still in full force today.


Advocates of the new plan praise the President for removing the government from the data-collection process. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union said that, “We have many questions about the details, but we agree with the administration that the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of call records should end.” Other advocates feel more comfortable with the data collection when there is direct judicial oversight to what kind of data the government could access. Opponents of the new program, however, are more suspicious. Some argue that allowing telephone companies to handle the data would allow the government to reach further into the data than if they had it themselves. Marcy Wheeler, an Independent Journalist, calls it “an attempt to outsource to telecoms some of the things the NSA hasn’t been able to do legally since 2009…” Despite the concerns that many share over government data use, most opponents agree that President Obama’s new plan is better than what currently exists.


So is this the end for Section 215? Much remains to be seen. Just last week the original authorization for Section 215 expired. A 90-day extension was granted and will most likely continue to be extended until the new plan gets to congress in the form of a bill.  Much more debate is expected once that plan hits the floor.

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