At midnight on Saturday, the federal government’s bulk data-gathering program for American phone conversations will come to an end at last.
The move comes more than two years after former government contractor-turned whistleblower Edward Snowden released thousands of classified documents to Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. His disclosure triggering a movement that demanded the National Security Agency (NSA) stop spying on its own citizens. The story of the spying scandal was turned into the 2014 documentary Citizenfour, which won an Oscar the following year.
According to NBC, after Saturday night the government must make a formal request to the telephone company any time it wants to examine a phone number that it suspects is linked to a terrorism case. The agency also cannot hold recorded phone calls without need. The move, granted by the passing of the USA Freedom Act last summer, was called “a first step but a modest one” by The Guardian’s MacAskill, adding that the NSA still has a huge capacity for surveillance:
The problem – and it is a major one – is the reform applies only to phone records. The NSA can continue to harvest bulk communications from the internet and social media.
The purported need for the federal government to record millions of Americans’ phone calls was debunked by a privacy and civil liberties review body, which could not find “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.”