How the end of Patriot Act provisions changes NSA surveillance

Thanks to resistance from Senator Rand Paul and other members of the Senate, the provisions of the USA Patriot Act that were used to justify the National Security Administration's broad collection of phone call metadata have expired. The Senate leadership is now scrambling to pass legislation that will restore some of these provisions, though the phone metadata provision—Section 215 of the Patriot Act—will likely not be renewed as it stood prior to its expiration.

So what does that do to the NSA's surveillance capabilities from a technical standpoint? All it really does is change where phone records are retained—they're back at the telephone carriers. It may create some technical and administrative hurdles to gain access to records, but those are hurdles the NSA has likely already addressed.

Section 215 changed aspects of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow requests through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for secret warrants that would grant access to "certain business records" by the FBI—including individuals' library and medical records, book sales records, educational records, and other "tangible things" related to interactions with businesses and public institutions. The NSA's bulk collection of phone records was justified under this provision—the request was made jointly with the FBI, and the phone companies who were served with the warrants were compelled to provide the data directly to the NSA. Because of their secrecy, these warrants compelled those served with them not to reveal that they had turned over data.

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