The National Security Agency vacuumed up more than 151 million records about Americans’ phone calls last year via a new system that Congress created to end the agency’s once-secret program that collected domestic calling records in bulk, says the New York Times. Although the number is large on its face, it nonetheless represents a massive reduction from the amount of information the agency gathered previously. Under the old system, it collected potentially “billions of records per day,” according to a 2014 study. A new report, an annual surveillance review by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, offered the first glimpse of how the new system is working.
That the National Security Agency still collected such a large volume of calling data showed the challenge of conducting 21st-century surveillance and data monitoring within constraints set up to protect Americans’ privacy. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agency has analyzed large amounts of communications metadata — records showing who contacted whom, but not what they said — to hunt for associates of terrorism suspects. That program came to light via the 2013 leaks by the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Congress enacted the USA Freedom Act two years later to end the bulk collection but preserve the program’s analytical abilities. Now, phone companies turn over only the calling histories of people suspected of terrorism links and everyone with whom they have been in contact.