NSA Reform Takes Its First Steps

Congress finally had enough.

Almost one year after the first disclosure about the NSA's abusive surveillance programs, the House Judiciary Committee made history on Wednesday when it voted unanimously to pass the USA FREEDOM Act. Much to our surprise, the House Intelligence Committee followed suit yesterday and also unanimously passed the same version of the bill. The next step: consideration by the full House of Representatives.

While this version is lacking some of the key privacy protections included in the original, it is an important step to reining in the surveillance state. At base, the bill attempts to stop the government from sweeping up personal information without having to present a compelling reason to a judge.

The USA FREEDOM Act takes steps to:

  • End bulk collection under Patriot Act Section 215. The bill requires the government to show the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the specific records it seeks from phone companies pertain to a specific email address, account number or other "selection term" before it can demand a customer's personal information. It creates a new collection authority for call records but takes meaningful steps to ensure that such records are not vacuumed up wholesale, as was happening under the secret programs revealed by Edward Snowden.
  • Prevent bulk collection under FISA pen register and National Security Letter authorities. The bill also requires the government to use a "selection term" that uniquely describes its surveillance target and serves as the basis for collecting information from a telephone line, facility, or other account. This would help ensure that the government won't use pen registers and National Security Letters as convenient substitutes for the 215 program.
  • Increase transparency. Finally, the bill requires the government to provide to Congress and to the public additional reporting on its surveillance programs, while enabling companies who receive national security informational requests to more fully inform customers about the extent to which the government is collecting their data. Additional governmental reporting requirements and more particularized third party reporting authorities, however, are needed in order to ensure that Congress and the public have the information they need to perform truly robust oversight.

While the bill makes significant reforms to U.S. surveillance law, Congress clearly chose not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And, to be clear, more work needs to be done. Some of the additional reforms we are calling for, which were in the original USA FREEDOM Act, include:

  • Ensuring that judges in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) have the authority to determine whether an application passes legal muster and do not return to being mere rubber stamps.
  • Limiting the circumstances under which the government can gather records more than one "hop" out from a target to help ensure Americans' information is not unnecessarily swept up.
  • Closing the "back door" search loophole in the FISA Amendments Act to prevent the government from searching information collected under Section 702 of FISA for the U.S. persons' communications content.

Nevertheless, the committees' passage of the USA FREEDOM Act is a significant moment in surveillance reform.

Last May, we noted that the government's requests for Patriot Act 215 orders had jumped 900 percent compared to four years earlier, resulting in a total of 212 applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2012. Less than a month later, the NSA got caught with its hand in the cookie jar when the world learned that it was using that authority to engage in the bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

You'd think that the congressional and public outrage that followed would stop the NSA from gobbling up Americans' private information. Instead the Justice Department's annual report on 215 orders revealed that in 2013 the government applied for and was granted 178 of these orders, including authorizations for bulk collections.

The revised USA FREEDOM Act is not a miracle cure but it does present a legitimate chance to end the most gratuitous invasion of our privacy: the bulk collection of our intimate records. And for that reason, Americans should be happy that a 29-year-old systems administrator had the guts to stand up for the Constitution and risk everything. With every Edward Snowden revelation, the whistle grew louder. This week, Congress responded.

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Greg P.

Maybe Snowden ought to be given a Nobel peace prize and have his freedom restored...

Anonymous

Do you really think the power hungry Government is going to stop the spying. We have to cut down on our addiction to social media networks. We have to stop using search engines who build a profile on us and track our every move. I use http://LookSeek.com
for my searches for about a year, they
don't track and they say my privacy is safe. If we keep letting all our
dirty laundry all over the internet , well than its our fault.

Vicki B.

I hate all this placing of people on pedestals to such an outlandish degree.
If I were going to do that - and people used to jump down my throat with a napalm flamethrower whenever I did it even in the SLIGHTest - I'd choose my friend, Richard.
He has 10 TIMES the "guts" Snowden ever did with one teeny little advantage: two days ago he literally saved my life. A guy pulled a gun on both of us because we beeped at his reckless driving; that could have ended my life with a terrifying rapidity and Richard almost literally jumped in front of the bullet. He grabbed the piece and twisted it away from where it was pointed. Within the moment before he did that, it's completely likely that a bullet could have been discharged while it was still pointing directly AT us. A bullet was discharged anyway but hit the car instead of either of us. I call that heroic even if Richard claims he "wasn't feeling like a hero, just still too used to jumping into action over issues that send adrenalin charging through my body." His Army training and experience overtook him.
I feel far more immediate gratitude for what Richard did and for his continued presence in my life than I do for Edward Snow. IDK why but I feel angry even hearing his name: Snowden, hero extraordinaire.
I have no idea if the guy would have shot us, but he was claiming Stand Your Ground rights in a state that didn't even have them, and I'm in no way prepared to think he wouldn't have done something despicable to us - I mean despicable beyond what he'd alREADY done just by pulling a gun on 2 unarmed citizens, one happening to be a retired Army Ranger and 2-tour Vietnam Veteran.

For that matter, if anybody wants to be brave in law I'd feel unDYing gratitude for the first legal person who challenges and has EVERY SYG law dismantled across the nation. That experience was just too damn freaky and scary.
Beep at another motorist and it could cost you your life?
Wayne LaPierre can kiss my derriere. Half of it IS his fault now. Before that positively BRAINLESS commercial you couldn't really blame him for gun violence; afterward, I have no problem considering him the most obtuse dingbat alive.

Not as interested in Snowden as I am Richard. I must have gotten at least some of my mom and dad's trait in which if something doesn't directly affect them - or they can't SEE how it does - I just don't get that upset about it.
Other times I get TOO upset at things. Still, I'm way more attuned to people I know, or at least have seen in real time instead of over modem, than those I haven't.

Anonymous

I feel like pointing out that Democracy Now reported about these programs years and years ago, and nobody paid attention, so it's not exactly 'first disclosure.' I dont know why everyone ignores their contribution.

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