The National Security Agency will purge all phone data collected during the operation of its expiring bulk surveillance program by the start of next year pending ongoing litigation, the government announced Monday.
"As soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, referring to a provision of the Patriot Act, said in a statement. "Analytic access" to those records, which go back five years, will end Nov. 29, and they will be destroyed three months later.
The decision comes as a victory for privacy advocates, who worried that the winding down of the mass surveillance program under a reform law enacted earlier this year could have allowed the NSA to continue to access phone records it already had collected. The phone dragnet was the first and most controversial program exposed by Edward Snowden two years ago.
Last month, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court revived the program after it briefly lapsed amid a standoff on Capitol Hill involving the renewal of lapsed spying provisions of the Patriot Act. The court said the June enactment of the NSA reform measure known as the USA Freedom Act allowed for a six-month "transition period" under which the NSA could continue its bulk collection.
On Nov. 29, the NSA will switch to a more limited system under which analysts can request phone metadata—the numbers and duration of calls but not their contents—from phone companies on an as-needed basis. At the same time, according to Monday's statement, access to previously collected records also will cease.
But there are caveats. The government said it would allow "technical personnel" access to the historic metadata for an additional three months after the six-month transition ends—a grace period to be used "solely for data-integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA Freedom Act."
But the ODNI also cautioned that it had a legal obligation to preserve the data it already collected due to ongoing litigation. Though it did not specify which cases, the statement appears to refer to cases brought forward by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that have claimed that the bulk-surveillance program was unconstitutional and not statutorily authorized.
It is unclear if there may be any exceptions to the data purging, or if any records could potentially be preserved in another government agency. The White House referred additional questions to the NSA, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.