Lawsuit Sheds Light on Bulk Collection of Phone Records by the DEA

Published: December 14, 2015 10:40 PM /


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The NSA may have gotten the most attention for its mass collection of phone records, but they are not the only government agency doing so. The Drug Enforcement Administration(DEA) has been running its own program to collect phone records in bulk. In a program started in 1992 under George Bush the elder, the DEA has since collected records of billions of international phone calls between Americans and those in other countries. Former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker characterized the DEA program as a "precursor" to the surveillance conducted by the NSA after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The government claims to have discontinued the DEA program in 2013, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a lawsuit against the government on behalf of their client, Human Rights Watch (HRW). The purpose of the lawsuit was to challenge the constitutionality of the program and to ensure the database of collected records was destroyed. The government had urged the court to dismiss the case, because the program had been discontinued and their was no longer any controversy for the judge to rule on.

However, the judge ordered the government to answer the questions posed to it by the plaintiffs. The EFF considers this a major breakthrough, as it is the first time a court has allowed the discovery process in a lawsuit to shed light on a mass surveillance program. Based on the government's responses to the discovery questions, the EFF has summarized their findings as follows:

(1) The database DEA used to store call records collected through this bulk program was the only database within the federal government used for storage of those records.

(2) The DEA’s database was only searched when the government had “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a particular number was related to an ongoing criminal investigation. No wholesale copies of the bulk data were made.

(3) When the program was operational, collected call records older than two years were automatically aged off the system and deleted on a continuing basis.

(4) The DEA’s bulk database was taken “off-line” in August 2013 and was not used for investigatory purposes after that date.

(5) By January 2015, the DEA had deleted the bulk database. This included destruction of any temporary files used to standardize the records after obtaining them from phone providers.

HRW has dropped their lawsuit, finding the government's responses, which were given under penalty of perjury, to be satisfactory. Even though it is good news that this surveillance program is no longer operational, the EFF warns that other similar programs probably still exist in other agencies. Even though the NSA's bulk collection of domestic phone records has been discontinued earlier this year, it is likely that the collection of international calls is still ongoing. The EFF promises to continue challenging government surveillance through legal challenges in the courts.

Are we all going to be killed by drug dealers now that the DEA is no longer collecting phone records? Leave your comments below.

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