Snowden leaks after one year: Wrangling over the meaning of 'bulk'

The Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance have ignited a debate, but little action in Washington

By , IDG News Service |  Internet

A debate in the U.S. about whether the National Security Agency should end its bulk collection of U.S. telephone and business records has come down to an argument over the meaning of the word "bulk."

A year after the first leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were published, it appears that already scaled-back proposals to limit the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. telephone and business records may not even happen. And officials with President Barack Obama's administration, backing an NSA reform bill called the USA Freedom Act, have already begun to pick holes in its definitions.

An amended version of the USA Freedom Act that passed the House of Representatives in May would allow the NSA to continue to target wide groups of U.S. records, critics said, because of its expanded definition of the terms the NSA must use to define its searches.

President Barack Obama in January announced plans to end the bulk collection of U.S. phone and business records, and administration officials have said the amended version of the USA Freedom Act would accomplish that goal.

But whether Obama's plan or the bill ends bulk collection depends on the definition of "bulk." Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday that the prohibition on bulk collection means the "indiscriminate" collection of U.S. records. The USA Freedom Act would allow the NSA to collect "large numbers of records," if a surveillance court judge approves the request, he said.

Somewhat contradictory, Cole said the bill would prohibit the collection of all phone records in a ZIP code. "That would be the type of indiscriminate bulk collection that this bill is designed to end," he said.

Large-scale targets

The language in the bill tells a different story, critics said.

"Senators, let us not use the phrase, 'bulk collection,' as coded jargon for existing programs or nationwide surveillance dragnets," Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said during the Thursday hearing. "Rather, bulk collection, as any normal person would understand it, means the large-scale collection of information about individuals with no connection to a crime or investigation."

The version of the bill that passed the House would allow the NSA to target wide groups of U.S. records, critics said, because it allows an expended definition of a "specific selection term" that the NSA must use to define its searches. The amended version of the bill allows the NSA to target things "such as a person, entity, accounts, address, or device," language that would give the NSA few limits on what groups it can target, critics said.

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