Here’s what the change really means for U.S. citizens.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) recently announced that as of “Sunday, November 29, the government is prohibited from collecting telephone metadata records in bulk under Section 215, including of both U.S. and non-U.S. persons. This discontinuation is a consequence of legislation, specifically the USA Freedom Act, resulting from public discussion of, and discomfort with, the program. In fact, evidence suggests there continue’s to be real public concerns around government surveillance.
Even among those who support ending this program — and there is far from unanimity on that, alternatives are already being discussed in Congress — debate rages about the importance of this change. There is an optimistic interpretation of this development; that the systems of checks and balances, legal challenges, and public discussion have acted to constrain a program where the tradeoff between privacy and security was not well-balanced. There is also a more pessimistic perspective. In this view, such changes, while real, are closer to window dressing than meaningful; and caveats like “under Section 215” leave a lot of wiggle room in which the same activities can be conducted under other authorities. If indeed similar data was being collected under other programs or legal justifications, perhaps with less rigorous oversight, the victory could be a pyrrhic one. In some ways, there is truth to both views.