A common defense of the NSA’s data collection practices is that the agency is only recording metadata, not the actual content of conversations. The only information the NSA receives is a log of when a call was made, to whom it was made, and where it was made.
During a recent debate at John Hopkins University, however, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden admitted that much can be ascertained from metadata alone.
According to David Cole’s article on NY Books about the matter, Hayden agreed with NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker’s statement about the importance of metadata ("Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life. If you have enough metadata, you don't really need content) and added “We kill people based on metadata.”
Many argue that metadata's easily searchable nature makes it a better alternative for the data collection agency than actually recording phone conversations. Metadata holds, some justify, enough data that it can be used to identify a threat.
U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) recently introduced legislation with bipartisan support called the USA Freedom Act, which aims to scale back the NSA’s collection of metadata. The bill, which would demand that all metadata and other information stay with telecommunications companies unless the federal government finds a valid reason to investigate, was passed by the House Judiciary Committee. According to RT, however, the bill only would affect American citizens, and not the many foreigners on which the federal government spies around the world.