The National Security Agency will purge all phone data historically collected during the operation of its controversial bulk surveillance program by the start of next year pending ongoing litigation, the government announced Monday.
"As soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, referring to a provision of the Patriot Act, said in a statement. "Analytic access" to those records, which go back five years, will end on November 29, 2015, and they will be destroyed three months later.
The decision comes as a victory to privacy advocates, who worried that the winding down of the mass surveillance program under a reform law enacted earlier this year could have allowed the NSA to continue to access phone records it had already collected. The phone dragnet was first exposed by Edward Snowden two years ago.
Last month, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court revived the phone dragnet after it briefly lapsed amid a standoff on Capitol Hill involving the renewal of expiring provisions of the Patriot Act. The court said the NSA reform measure known as the USA Freedom Act allowed for a six-month "transition period" under which the NSA could continue its bulk collection.
At the end of that timeframe on November 29, 2015, the NSA will switch to a more limited system under which analysts can request phone metadata—the numbers and duration of calls but not their contents—from phone companies on an as needed basis.
In its Monday statement, the government said it would allow "technical personnel" access to the historic metadata for an additional three months after the six-month transition ends—a grace period to be used "solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA Freedom Act."
But the ODNI also cautioned that it had a legal obligation to preserve the data it had already collected over time due to ongoing litigation. Though it did not specify which cases, the statement appears to refer to cases brought forward by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that have claimed the bulk surveillance program was unconstitutional and not statutorily authorized.