The US National Security Agency (NSA) has announced that it is to restrict access to historic telephone records collected under the Patriot Act, following last month's passing of the USA Freedom Act. In a statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the agency said that the phone records would eventually be destroyed after a six month transition period.
The topic of collecting phone metadata has been a controversial one ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the program as part of a massive leak to journalists in 2013. Since then, US President Barack Obama pushed for a law that would prevent intelligence agencies from collecting phone metadata, however historical records remained accessible to the NSA.
According to court records, the program was not considered instrumental in preventing terrorist attacks, despite the NSA accessing the database an average of 300 times per year. Some security analysts have expressed concern that there may be a greater risk of attack if agencies are unable to easily map connections through metadata going back several years.
"There's a potential reduction in capability that they are accepting under pressure. Whatever intelligence and analytical value might reside in this data will be eliminated. It's a political choice that they are making, and it shows that at the end of the day they are a law-abiding organisation. They are not putting their intelligence interests above external control," Steven Aftergood, a writer for the Federation of American Scientists, told the Associated Press.
The NSA is unable to purge the phone records immediately due to ongoing lawsuits but would do so as soon as it was possible. The NSA stated: "NSA remains under a continuing legal obligation to preserve its bulk 215 telephony metadata collection until civil litigation regarding the program is resolved, or the relevant courts relieve NSA of such obligations."
"The telephony metadata preserved solely because of preservation obligations in pending civil litigation will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations."