Following the conclusion of ongoing civil lawsuits, the National Security Agency plans on purging historically gathered phone record metadata that has come under scrutiny following revelations of massive surveillance programs and policies developed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The federal agency will no longer keep data past 180 days of its collection, and old metadata will be used only in relation to the ongoing lawsuits, according to a statement.
“As part of our effort to transition to the new authority, we have evaluated whether NSA should maintain access to the historical metadata after the conclusion of that 180-day period,” the statement reads. The new policy will take effect in November. However, data analysts will maintain access to old records for another three months beyond the cutoff date.
The change in policy comes months after Congress renewed provisions of the Patriot Act that detail the legal framework for the government's surveillance programs. In doing so, Congress also set up a six-month transitional period for the NSA to limit its sweeping authority to collect telephone metadata without being specific about which records are obtained. Investigators are able to access only the metadata, like when calls are made and to whom at what time, but can’t access the content of telephone conversations.
The spying programs were exposed by a former government contractor, Edward Snowden, who leaked documents detailing the rise of the programs since the Patriot Act was enacted. Snowden gave the documents to American journalists who came to meet him in China. He is currently in exile in Russia, and faces federal charges should he return to the U.S. or be extradited.
The leaks began a national discussion on the amount of government surveillance that is appropriate in the United States, and specifically into whether or not it is appropriate for U.S. officials to target American citizens domestically during these dragnet exercises.