Bill reforming NSA collection of phone data advances in US House

Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
After falling two votes shy of earning a floor vote in the US Senate last year, lawmakers are once again trying to pass a bill that reforms the way the National Security Agency gathers the phone records of American citizens.

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In a 25-2 vote, the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly voted to advance the USA Freedom Act, setting the bill up for a floor vote. If passed, it could move to the Senate and pave the way for lawmakers to address some of the concerns privacy advocates have with the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs.

With three different provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire on June 1, the new bill’s success or failure could play a significant role in deciding whether the Patriot Act is renewed. Ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed numerous programs that the agency uses to gather data on foreigners and Americans, civil liberties advocates have been searching for ways to either stop the collection or place it under stricter scrutiny.

Under the Freedom Act, the NSA would be barred from gathering data via Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was previously leaned on as the core legal justification for its bulk data collection program. Instead, the bill would place metadata records – information such as the time a call was made and the duration of the call, but not the actual content of the call itself – in the possession of telephone companies.

If the NSA wanted to access metadata records, it must request the data using a “specific selection term.” According to the privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the bill would not permit the NSA to use terms such as “People in California” in order to obtain data from a wide swathe of people. Rather, the term must be a “person, account, address, or personal device,” and must be associated with international terrorism.

“The bill ends bulk collection, it ends secret law,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act who has now helped author the Freedom Act, to the Hill.“It increases the transparency of our intelligence community and it does all this without compromising national security.”

Additionally, the bill would tweak the way the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) handles surveillance requests. It would add a five-person panel to advise the court on potentially important applications of law, with one notable intention of the panel being to safeguard civil liberties, and declassify important rulings.

In a statement the EFF called the Freedom Act a “small step in the right direction” but also added that it has “serious faults that should be addressed.”

Notably, the bill does not attempt to reform the NSA’s ability to gather mass internet data through programs like PRISM, which is executed alongside private companies, and “Upstream surveillance,” which involves intercepting online records such as emails, instant messages, webpages, voice calls, and video chat.

As noted by Gizmodo, the bill also leaves intact surveillance programs conducted by the Drug Enforcement Agency and levies high penalties against those offering “material support” to terrorists. It also renews the expiring parts of the Patriot Act through 2019.

“This bill would make only incremental improvements, and at least one provision – the material-support provision – would represent a significant step backwards,” American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement to Gizmodo. “The disclosures of the last two years make clear that we need wholesale reform.”

Outspoken privacy advocates such as Jaffer would rather see Section 215 expire altogether and see what lawmakers come up with then instead of supporting the Freedom Act.

The Freedom Act very nearly passed both chambers of Congress last year, but it failed to garner the 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate. It fell short by two votes.

There are other bills being considered in the Senate, including one that would simply repeal the Patriot Act in its entirety, but the Freedom Act is most likely to gain bipartisan support.