NSA granted extension to collect phone data

The NSA has been granted an extension of 90 days to continue collecting US phone records in bulk

The US National Security Agency (NSA) has been granted an extension of 90 days to continue collecting US citizens' phone records in bulk, despite new legislation to end the practice.

An application to reauthorise the controversial data collection programme was approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

The approval was confirmed in a joint statement by the US Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In May, the House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act to create a new mechanism for the government to obtain this phone metadata.

The new legislation gives access to metadata only through individual orders from the FISC, rather than in bulk. It also prohibits bulk collection by using trap and trace devices, and national security letters.

But the joint statement notes that the government applied for the extension in view of the fact that the new legislation has not yet been enacted. It is still awaiting approval by the Senate.

The bulk collection of phone metadata in the US by the NSA was first disclosed in June 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden, provoking strong criticism from civil liberty groups.

The latest extension to the bulk collection programme is the fifth since it was made public, according to The Guardian.

In January 2014, US president Barack Obama proposed changes to the programme. These include that the government should not collect or hold the data in bulk, that the FISC must approve all access to metadata, and that the query results must be limited to metadata within two hops of a number associated with a terrorist group, instead of the three hops previously authorised. 

But civil rights groups argue that the version of the bill that was passed by the House of Representatives contains loopholes that the NSA could exploit to continue collecting data in bulk.

These groups are lobbying the Senate to remove the loopholes before the legislation is enacted.

In the joint statement confirming the extension of the current programme, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said they would work with Congress to clarify the language of the bill before it is voted on by the Senate.

"Overall, the bill's significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programmes and the checks and balances in the system, while ensuring our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the nation," the statement said.

"The administration strongly supports the USA Freedom Act. We urge the Senate to swiftly consider it, and remain ready to work with Congress to clarify that the bill prohibits bulk collection as noted above, as necessary.”

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