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Watchdog says NSA phone spying program is illegal and should end

Published Jan 23rd, 2014 8:00AM EST
NSA Phone Spying Program Illegal

A report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) that should be released on Thursday says that the NSA’s phone spying program is illegal and should end, The Washington Post revealed. “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation,” the 238-page report says. “Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

The report says that the NSA phone data program cannot be grounded in Section 215, which “requires that records sought by the government — in this case phone numbers dialed, call times and durations, but not call content — be relevant to an authorized investigation.” The board concludes that it’s impossible that all the records collected are relevant to a single investigation, “without redefining the word in a manner that is circular, unlimited in scope.”

Trying to determine the program’s value, the PCLOB looked at 12 terrorism cases that the intelligence community said involved information obtained through the Section 215 program, and found that data collected was not actually that relevant, and was used mainly to corroborate information already obtained by the FBI. The board also revealed that even though the NSA intercepted a call between an al Qaeda terrorist who was in the United States before the 2001 attacks, it did not realize the calls originated from San Diego. It also said that the program did not have any role in disrupting the 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway.

Furthermore, NSA’s practice of collecting data in bulk raises “’constitutional concerns,’ with regard to U.S. citizens’ rights of speech, association and privacy.” “The Board believes that the Section 215 program has contributed only minimal value in combating terrorism beyond what the government already achieves through these and other alternative means,” the report says. “Cessation of the program would eliminate the privacy and civil liberties concerns associated with bulk collection without unduly hampering the government’s efforts, while ensuring that any governmental requests for telephone calling records are tailored to the needs of specific investigations.”

After many reports offered more and more details about the NSA’s spying and data collection powers, in a speech on Friday President Obama said the NSA’s database of records should be moved out of government’s hands. However, in its report, the PCLOB also said that it opposes the idea of a third-party holding on data for the NSA, or that phone companies should hold data for longer than they do now.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.