Come Sunday, the NSA will end its ferocious dragnet surveillance of American citizens' phones, the White House insists.
From 2359 Eastern Time (0459 GMT) on November 29, the super-spy agency must jump through some extra hoops to access US folks' telephone records.
Although this information does not include the content of phone calls, the records – such as who called whom, and when – are enough to piece together a person's private life.
The climbdown in surveillance, apparently the biggest since spying was ramped up post-9/11, was triggered in May when the NSA's mass spying operation was ruled illegal by a court of appeal.
In June, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act allowing the NSA to continue to dig into the logs of Americans' phone calls – but with some limits. The intelligence agency must get a court order before asking telcos for the metadata, and only ask for accounts relating to specific investigations, as opposed to intercepting every last scrap of data just in case it's needed later. Each order lasts up to six months.
In other words, the telephone companies keep the records, and the g-men have to ask nicely for them, rather than automatically grabbing it all off the wire directly. In addition, the court scrutinizing the requests for metadata will not just hear evidence from the US government's side but will, in certain circumstances, have an advocate presenting the viewpoint of those being spied upon.
The NSA was allowed to continue its dragnet slurping of records until the end of November; the USA Freedom Act requires this blanket surveillance to end on the 29th, and the Obama administration says the replacement spying systems will be in place by that time. All the metadata collected so far will remain in NSA archives until February 29, and will be purged once the agency is clear of any and all legal action involving the surveillance program.
The daily gulping down of innocent citizens' phone metadata was revealed by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 before he fled to Russia from Hawaii via Hong Kong.
Of course, all this applies to US spies spying on US citizens; non-Americans are still fair game for total surveillance by Uncle Sam. And it must be noted: the US government has previously found ways to sneakily access its citizens' communications metadata from beyond its borders. ®