Court reverses, will allow NSA to keep data longer

A federal court reversed an earlier decision and will allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to hold phone records relating to pending lawsuits.

Earlier this month, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rejected the U.S. government's argument that it needed to retain data past the legally allowed period of five years in order to handle ongoing lawsuits over the NSA's controversial surveillance program.

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In that decision, Judge Reggie Walton called the government's argument "simply unpersuasive" and said the court could find no "case law supporting the government’s broad assertion that its duty to preserve supersedes statutory or regulatory requirement."

The U.S. government was handed a conflicting ruling earlier this week when a federal judge in San Francisco said the government could not destroy phone records after the five-year retention period expired.

The judge, siding with plaintiffs who were suing over the legality of the NSA's surveillance programs and wanted the government to retain the data for the lawsuits, issued a restraining order to keep the government from destroying the data. 

Late on Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed with the surveillance court, asking for clarification on the two conflicting rulings.

"These conflicting directives from federal courts put the government in an untenable position and are likely to lead to uncertainty and confusion," Walton wrote Wednesday, allowing the government to keep the data.

Walton set out limits for how the NSA can use the data it must now retain.

Agency personnel can access the data "only for the purpose of ensuring continued compliance with the government's preservation obligations," he wrote.

The government will have to approach the surveillance court if it wants to access the data for other reasons and will have to notify the court when the pending lawsuits that prompted the restraining order are concluded, Walton wrote.

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