On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee passed on a 25-2 vote a revamped version of the 2014 USA Freedom Act in an attempt to discourage National Security Agency’s practices of mass-collecting data on Americans‘ phone calls.
Besides outlawing bulk collection of data, the new legislation will also extend the Patriot Act’s provisions set to expire this summer until 2019.
Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the bill and the initial drafter of the Patriot Act, said that the new law will boost NSA’s transparency without putting at risk national security.
June 1 is the final deadline when Congress can extend three provisions of the Patriot Act, which include re-authorization of the NSA’s practice to collect data on phone calls of millions of people. According to NSA, the agency doesn’t spy on Americans’ phone calls since it only collects “metadata” on their phone records such as date of phone call and the numbers involved in the conversation.
In 2014, Senate tried to pass another version of the US Freedom Act but the bill wasn’t approved by two votes. Experts claim that this year’s version of the act is somehow “diluted” from the initial one, but it does achieve two main goals of the initial act: it reforms the court that oversees NSA’s spying operations and ends once and for all bulk collection of private phone records.
For years, the agency built mass surveillance databases by reinterpreting Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The new law authorizes phone surveillance only if there is a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the individuals using the phone are involved in international terrorism activities. Moreover, the “specific selection term” used by the agency to define the people or group of people who will have their phones tapped increasingly limits the extent of phone data collection.
Until now a broad selection term could also refer to “residents of Ohio” or “people with Comcats phone numbers,” which allowed NSA to run mass surveillance programs. But a “specific selection term” may only point at an individual, a device or an account. So, this should end bulk collection.
On the other hand, the law fails to be more specific whenever NSA tries o collect data on other things, except phone records, such as geographic location or all the records on an internet service provider.
The new legislation also plans to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), the covert court that supervises and approves NSA’s requests. The courts will appoint five experts that would advocate for civil rights protection and instruct the court on new technologies, NSA practices or any other issues that need to be clarified by the court.
Additionally, FISA will have to make public any significant interpretations of the law or its provisions such as redefining “specific selection term.”
But despite the good news, privacy advocates argue that there is more to be done since the new law does not shield non-Americans from NSA surveillance and does not address FISA Amendments Act’s provision that enables the agency to run PRISM mass surveillance program on foreign nationals.
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