Just 45 days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, a panicked Congress passed, with virtually no debate, the USA Patriot Act. The law amounted to an overnight revision of the nation's surveillance laws that vastly expanded the government's authority to spy on its own citizens, while simultaneously reducing checks and balances on those powers.
For years, we had little official information about how the government interpreted the overly broad surveillance bill. On June 6, 2013, the first of Edward Snowden's disclosures confirmed what some privacy advocates had long feared: Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the U.S. government collects, on a daily basis, the phone records of millions of Americans. These records include the numbers dialed and received, the dates and times of those calls, and their duration. That program was ruled unlawful by an appeals court in May 2015.
Section 215 is one of the three sections of the Patriot Act that are scheduled to sunset on June 1, 2015. This long-abused provision of the law has been a failure by nearly every measure. The author of the law has publicly stated that it was never intended to facilitate mass, suspicionless surveillance. It has not played an essential role in stopping any attack. And it has enabled an unprecedented surveillance superstructure that violates Americans' rights to privacy, free speech, and free association.
Unless Congress can agree on far-reaching reforms, it is high time for Section 215 to sunset.
On May 13, 2015, the House passed the USA Freedom Act, a bill many see as a last-ditch effort to enact surveillance reform before the June 1 sunset. Some provisions of the bill may offer incremental improvements over the dismal status quo. However, in the wake of the 2nd Circuit's decision, it is clear that the proposal now on the table does not go nearly far enough. Unless the bill is significantly strengthened in the Senate, the provision should be allowed to expire.