The National Security Agency may be forced to expand its extensive collection of phone records, an unintended consequence of lawsuits aiming to stop the controversial surveillance program, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Government officials have told the paper that federal court rules on preserving evidence related to lawsuits could mean that the agency would be forced to stop routinely destroying older phone records, thereby expanding the database, at least while the lawsuits remain active.
“It’s difficult to understand why the government would consider taking this position, when the relief we’ve requested in the lawsuit is a purge of our data,” Patrick Toomey, an ACLU lawyer on one of the lawsuits against the government, told the newspaper.
No final decision about whether to retain the data has yet been made, but one official told the Journal that if the information was preserved, it would be used solely for lawsuits and not for surveillance purposes.
Cindy Cohn, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the other plaintiffs in the case, said she did not see a problem with the government saving the phone records as long as they would not still be searchable under the program.
“If they’re destroying evidence, that would be a crime,” she said. She did, however, question the motives and timing of the government in considering this course of action, telling the Journal, “I think they’re looking for any way to throw rocks at the litigation.”
Surveillance program critics, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the program, say the collection and storage of phone records violates Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.
In December, a presidential advisory panel recommended sweeping limits on the government’s surveillance programs, including requiring a court to sign off on individual searches of phone records and stripping the NSA of its ability to store that data from Americans.
The NSA currently holds about five years of data, and about twice a year, purges any call record more than five years old, officials told the Journal.
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By Melanie Batley