NSA can track everyone's phone calls again -- for a while

Bulk data collection allowed to resume after a surveillance court judge rules that Congress meant to keep the NSA's program going until November.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
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Laura Hautala
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The National Security Agency got back its bulk data collection ability -- at least temporarily. Declan McCullagh/CNET

When did you last call your mother? Don't worry if you can't remember -- the National Security Agency can once more keep track of that for you. That is, for the next 180 days.

After briefly suspending its bulk collection of phone call data, the NSA now has the authority to start it up again, a federal judge ruled on Monday.

The data collection program has become the center of national debate over government surveillance and privacy in the digital age. Whistleblowers like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have made public intelligence programs designed to reach into the vast store of information on our phones and Internet browsers and paint an extremely detailed picture of the nation's communications.

Despite the continuation of the program, Monday's ruling helps push forward Congress's ongoing plan to narrow the NSA's phone call data collection practices by reaffirming its end in November. After November, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court won't provide a blanket approval to the practice any longer.

Federal lawmakers let the section of the USA Patriot Act that had been used to legitimize the data-collection program expire in May. Then in early June, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which extended the program for about another five months while changes to the rules are implemented.

Judge Michael W. Mosman, who presides in the surveillance court, wrote in his ruling that the case considers the question of whether bulk data-collection has legally ended.

"The short answer is yes," Mosman wrote in his ruling (PDF). But he later noted, "In passing the USA Freedom Act, Congress clearly intended to end bulk data collection of business records and other tangible things. But what it took away with one hand, it gave back -- for a limited time -- with the other."

The NSA deferred a request for comment to the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Neither of those agencies responded to requests for comment.

In a press release from early June, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper called for the passage of the USA Freedom ACT. The expiration of parts of the USA Patriot Act had hurt the government's ability to protect residents from terrorists, and the problem would remain if the new law wasn't passed, he said.

"We would lose entirely an important capability that helps us identify potential US-based associates of foreign terrorists," Clapper wrote.