NSA Collected 200 Million Text Messages A Day But It's Coming To An End

As the Guardian broke the news that that the NSA was harvesting nearly 200 million text messages per day (per its investigation in collaboration with the UK’s Channel 4 News into NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaked materials), President Obama said in a speech at the Justice Department that the U.S. government should not be in control of culled phone data.

He also called on U.S. intelligence agencies to cease its foreign spying on friendly leaders and advocated for more privacy controls for citizens of those foreign nations whose phone data the U.S. collects. Generally, he wants to dial down the NSA’s widely-sweeping surveillance, and the New York Times noted that his advisors have urged him to end the systematic collection of phone logs.

Obama NSA speech
President Obama (Credit: Carolyn Kaster, AP)

He did not, however, offer any solutions--his speech was more of a mandate for the NSA to figure out a better way to handle stored data associated with SMS text messages. He actually said that collecting some intelligence is necessary, so the U.S. can “protect its citizens and the citizens of its allies and partners from harm”, while also allowing that privacy is a legitimate concern for citizens.

The Washington Post says that Obama is giving the attorney general and the intelligence community 60 days to figure out a new solution to storing phone data. None of the possible options, including letting phone companies or some third party hang onto the data, seem particularly attractive.

The most elegant solution that would ensure that there are no breaches or abuses of the data would be to delete what the NSA currently has and stop collecting phone data altogether. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as though anyone in the government is willing to take things that far.

NSA text messages UK GCHQ
Presentation slide obtained by The Guardian

Further complicating matters is the international element. The Guardian’s investigation makes it clear that it’s not just U.S. intelligence agencies using all this data; the UK’s GCHQ spy agency is using the database’s metadata to hunt for information on its citizens as well, including travel plans, contacts, financial transactions, and geolocation data. Allowing other countries to spy on internationals with a U.S.-collected database of information is dangerous waters.

According to the Guardian, the White House began reviewing the NSA’s secret surveillance program after Edward Snowden’s leaks, and now it appears that Snowden’s efforts have led to high-level changes in the U.S.’s domestic spying policies. Is he still an enemy of the state, then? Are we still trying to extradite and prosecute the guy?