In the first full year of the Trump administration, the National Security Agency really went all out in efforts to surveil Americans. According to a new report released Friday, the agency sucked up more than 534 million US phone records in 2017, three times the amount it collected in 2016.
The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed the agency has been undeterred in his pursuit of metadata from phone calls and text messages, which it gathers from telecommunications providers like Verizon and AT&T, even with the passage of laws in recent years designed to curb the invasive practice.
Metadata from collected from phone records do not reveal the content of a given conversation, but it tells the NSA basically everything else about the interaction. It reveals the phone numbers involved, the time contact is made, and how long a call was or how many characters were exchanged in text messages.
While it might not seem like much, metadata can be quite revealing. The information itself is supposedly anonymous, but it can easily be used to identify an individual. The information can also be paired with other publicly available information from social media and other sources to paint a surprisingly detailed picture of a person’s life.
The bulk collection of records from Americans comes despite the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which was intended to limit the agency’s domestic spying capabilities by requiring NSA agents and members of law enforcement to get a court order before collecting the metadata of people they believe to be suspicious.
In perhaps the least surprising twist of all time, the bill appears to have accomplished next to nothing. While the NSA did shut down one of its domestic spying programs as a result of the law—a program that systematically collected billions of records every day—it picked up the slack elsewhere with a number of other clandestine spying programs and legal justifications that allows the agency to cast a wide and indiscriminate net when collecting data.