Concurrent with the Obama administration’s press conference in which he discussed reforming current procedures under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the administration released its legal basis for its collection of “telephony metadata in bulk.” The legal white paper has not exactly wowed Obama’s supporters or critics in Washington.
Many commentators have objected to seemingly circular logic of the following passage:
Multiple FISC judges have found that Section 215 authorizes the collection of telephony metadata in bulk. Section 215 permits the FBI to seek a court order directing a business or other entity to produce records or documents when there are reasonable grounds to believe that the information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation of international terrorism. Courts have held in the analogous contexts of civil discovery and criminal and administrative investigations that “relevance” is a broad standard that permits discovery of large volumes of data in circumstances where doing so is necessary to identify much smaller amounts of information within that data that directly bears on the matter being investigated. Although broad in scope, the telephony metadata collection program meets the “relevance” standard of Section215 because there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that this category of data, when queried and analyzed consistent with the Court-approved standards, will produce information pertinent to FBI investigations of international terrorism, and because certain analytic tools used to accomplish this objective require the collection and storage of a large volume of telephony metadata.
Specifically, in the circumstance where the Government has reason to believe that conducting a search of a broad collection of telephony metadata records will produce counterterrorism information—and that it is necessary to collect a large volume of data in order to employ the analytic tools needed to identify that information—the standard of relevance under Section 215 is satisfied
The information collected includes, for example, the telephone numbers dialed, other session-identifying information, and the date, time, and duration of a call. The NSA, in turn, stores and analyzes this information under carefully controlled circumstances. The judicial orders authorizing the collection do not allow the Government to collect the content of any telephone call, or the names, addresses, or financial information of any party to a call. The Government also does not collect cell phone locational information pursuant to these orders . . . .Thus, critically, although a large amount of metadata is consolidated and preserved by the Government, the vast majority of that information is never seen by any person. Only information responsive to the limited queries that are authorized for counterterrorism purposes is extracted and reviewed by analysts. Although the number of unique identifiers has varied substantially over the years, in 2012, fewer than 300 met the “reasonable, articulable suspicion” standard and were used as seeds to query the data after meeting the standard. Because the same seed identifier can be queried more than once over time, can generate multiple responsive records, and can be used to obtain contact numbers up to three “hops” from the seed identifier,the number of metadata records responsive to such queries is substantially larger than 300, but it is still a tiny fraction of the total volume of metadata records. It would be impossible to conduct these queries effectively without a large pool of telephony metadata to search, as there is no way to know in advance which numbers will be responsive to the authorized queries.