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NSA collected 151 million phone records in 2016, despite surveillance law changes

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New report shows the difficulty in reining in bulk surveillance programs

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In 2016, the National Security Agency collected more than 151 million records about Americans’ phone calls, despite Congress passing a law the previous year — the USA Freedom Act — intended to curb bulk surveillance. These records are comprised of metadata about calls (which includes time, duration, and the numbers of both recipient and caller) and their collection was revealed in an annual transparency report, published on Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The report is the first assessment the public has seen of the impact of the USA Freedom Act, and shows the difficulty the NSA has reining in surveillance while continuing to collect useful intelligence. This Freedom Act was passed in 2015 after the Snowden revelations, and limits the NSA to collecting call metadata about individuals suspected of having ties to terrorism. The report shows that in 2016 the NSA received warrants to collect such information on only 46 terrorism suspects.

According to Reuters, officials from the NSA defended the report by saying that the figure of 151 million records was tiny compared to the scope of US surveillance pre-Snowden. (At that time the agency could scoop up “billions of records per day,” said one 2014 study.) The figure of “151 million” is also misleading, said the NSA, as it counts multiple calls made to or from the same phone number. This, said the agency, explains the discrepancy between the small number of warrants and the huge number of records. However, the NSA did not provide a breakdown of the exact number of individuals caught up in the surveillance program, and many privacy advocates will be angered by the huge number of records still being collected.