NSA Targeted the Phone Records of 248 Americans in 2013

Graffiti in Cheltenham, England by street artist Banksy depicts government spying on telephone communications. Photographed April 16, 2014. Eddie Keogh/Reuters

In 2013, the National Security Agency's controversial telephone metadata program—which collects the call records of every U.S. citizen—was used to spy on only 248 Americans, said a transparency report published last week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

The small size of that number is deceptive, says Mark Rumold, an attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group: "It should be zero." Rumold explains that the bulk-collection program was intended to spy on foreign targets. The telephone call data collected were only supposed to inform investigations aimed at foreigners communicating with people inside the country.

"To be clear," Rumold adds, "248 is the number of people [in the U.S.] whose numbers they targeted. The program still included the collection and search of millions of Americans" who were within three degrees of a target (for example, someone who had called someone who had called someone who had called a target).

The call log surveillance program, justified under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, was first revealed by USA Today in 2006. The paper reported at the time that the NSA collected the records of "tens of millions" of AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth customers. One NSA official commented that the agency's goal was "to create a database of every call ever made."

In June 2013, the program resurfaced in the news, when former U.S. intelligence worker Edward Snowden leaked documents indicating that the NSA had collected the call records of 120 million Verizon customers.

Every 90 days, the NSA must renew its permission to collect phone data on Americans. To do so, it must make its case to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court consisting of a rotating panel of federal judges who determine the legality of each individual surveillance request. According to the DNI's transparency report, in 2013, the NSA submitted 178 applications.

While the agency's database of phone calls, known as MAINWAY, does not store the content of communications, it has been argued that in some cases metadata can be more revealing, as it allows the government to assemble a searchable social network of their targets. These networks contain information about target's political views, medical history, personal lives, movements, beliefs and affiliations.

The telephone metadata program has been one of the most hotly debated in the U.S., as it pertains to the surveillance of American citizens inside the country. In the summer of last year, Representative Justin Amash (R-Michigan) proposed an amendment to defend the metadata collection program. It was voted down by a margin of only 12 votes. In January 2014, President Barack Obama announced plans rein in the program. Then, in March, he called for an end to bulk metadata collection under Section 215. (Note: In reality, the program only ends bulk collection by the U.S. government; telecom companies will still possess the call logs, where they will presumably still be within reach of the U.S. government.)

Only days before the DNI report was issued, however, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted the NSA permission to continue the program until September 12, 2014.

"The ball is in Congress's court now," says Rumold.