The NSA reportedly ended the surveillance program 11:59 EST last Saturday, as required by law, Reuters reports. The White House reports it expects to have a new scaled-back system in place by then.
This is a much-anticipated victory for tech companies and privacy advocates already worried about broad government surveillance amid heightened national security concerns in the wake of the Paris attacks earlier this month.
The controversial program’s demise comes more than two years after it was exposed by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the NSA. Mandated by a law passed six months ago, the move represents the steepest reduction of U.S. spying powers since they were widely expanded in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Essentially the program worked like this: the government would ask the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for an order that required the big telecoms to submit metadata — including things like telephone numbers and duration of calls, but not the contents of the calls — for virtually all calls made by customers, NPR reports.
In one instance, a document revealed by Snowden was an order by the FISC requiring Verizon to turn over all these records. His revelations spurred a contentious congressional debate, and that ultimately led to the USA Freedom Act.
The law allows the government to access the information, but the massive database of call records now stays with service providers, which means the government must seek court orders to access specific records.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) proposed the Liberty Through Strength Act, which would have kept the program operating for at least another year, and make permanent several other Patriot Act provisions.
Cotton’s legislation was backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), but support for NSA reform from the White House and both sides of Congress won the day.
“With the transition period ending, the Intelligence Community has fulfilled an important Presidential commitment that allows national security professionals to retain the capabilities necessary to continue protecting the country, while strengthening the civil liberties protections that the American people cherish,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a statement Friday.
Reuters notes new surveillance measures aren’t likely to become law prior to the November 2016 presidential elections.
The surveillance regime didn’t lead to a clear counter terrorism breakthrough that could be directly linked to the program, a presidential review committee determined.
It should be noted that other parts of the program remain intact, NPR reports. This includes the PRISM program, which was also leaked by Snowden’s documents. It collects a vast amount of Internet data, but hasn’t been as controversial because it doesn’t directly target Americans. Nevertheless, some content from Americans’ communication still winds up caught in the dragnet.
Metadata gleaned by the NSA during the past five years will be preserved for “data integrity purposes” until Feb. 29, the White House said, per Reuters.
After that, the NSA will purge all of these historic records once litigation is resolved.