The Obama Administration is urging the House of Representatives to give its stamp of approval this week to the USA Freedom Act — legislation meant to bring an end to the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records by government agencies such as the National Security Agency.
The legislation, put forward by President Barack Obama himself, will address Section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act — legislation that allows the NSA to collect bulk phone data and hold on to it for five years — if it is made law. Although the agency has said the program was activated for the express purpose of tracking down foreign terrorists and terrorist threats, the data of U.S. residents was being collected daily.
Under Obama’s plan, bulk records will remain with the phone companies, effectively ending the NSA’s bulk collection practices. In the future, the agency would need permission from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge to access such data. The judge will also approve only specific numbers for such queries.
“The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,” the White House said in a statement.
“Among other provisions, the bill prohibits bulk collection through the use of Section 215, FISA pen registers, and National Security Letters. The President has called for a transition to end bulk collection under Section 215, and the Administration strongly supports this prohibition. Overall, the bill’s significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system. The Administration supports swift House passage of the USA Freedom Act, and urges the Senate to follow suit.”
Obama’s endorsement of the bill comes in spite of the changes made to it since its introduction.
Those changes, according to the Center for Democracy & Technology’s (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), come courtesy of the House Leadership and weaken the original intent of the bill.
The House of Representatives gave the green light to an amendment that, according to Politico, offers “a more porous definition of the kinds of information the government can use to request data from phone companies — known as a ‘specific selection term’ — and civil liberties groups worry that could open the door to government access to data on people that aren’t part of an investigation.”
CDT President and CEO Nuala O’Connor says her agency has withdrawn its support for the House version of the bill.
“This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ private information. The bill now offers only mild reform and goes against the overwhelming support for definitively ending bulk collection,” said O’Connor in a statement.
The EFF said the modified bill does not “sufficiently address Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act.”
“We are specifically concerned that the new language references ‘about’ searches, which collect and review messages of users who do not even communicate with surveillance targets,” the EFF said in a press release . “Congress must include reforming Section 702 in any NSA reform. This includes stopping the NSA from searching illegally collected Americans’ communications, stopping the suspicionless “about” surveillance, and ensuring companies can report on the exact number of orders they receive and the number of users affected.”