Governance & Risk Management , Legislation & Litigation , Privacy

Bill Would End NSA Bulk Collection Program

Versions of the Measure Introduced in House, Senate
Bill Would End NSA Bulk Collection Program

Bipartisan legislation to end the National Security Agency's bulk phone records collection program has been introduced in Congress.

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The USA Freedom Act would prohibit the NSA's previously secret practice of conducting large-scale, indiscriminate collection of communications records, such as all records from an entire state, city or zip code.

The legislation would allow authorities to seek court approval to obtain specific communications records based on a threat to national security.

The House version of the bill will be considered by the Judiciary Committee on April 30. Similar legislation passed the House in the last Congress, but it never came up for a vote in the Senate (see Bulk Collection Battle Moves to the Senate).

"As several intelligence-gathering programs are set to expire in a month, it is imperative that we reform these programs to protect Americans' privacy while at the same time protecting our national security," a statement from the four House sponsors says, referring to the June 1 expiration of key provisions of the Patriot Act. The House sponsors are Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Judiciary Committee chairman; John Conyers, D-Mich., committee ranking member; Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.; and Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are the sponsors of a Senate version of the bill.

Curtailing Patriot Act Provision

The NSA used Section 215 of the Patriot Act, enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to justify its warrantless, bulk collection of phone records of American citizens. Those records contain metadata on the telephone numbers individuals called and the time the calls were placed. Conversations were not recorded. Section 215 provides for a secret review by a judge of records pertaining to international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities that the government seeks.

Under the Patriot Act, phone companies could not even reveal the fact that the government sought call records. The new legislation Congress will consider codifies a process in which phone companies could disclose the government's request for phone records.

The leaks of classified documents by then NSA contractor Edward Snowden nearly two years ago uncovered the secretive NSA's bulk collection program.

According to a House Judiciary Committee fact sheet, the legislation also would create a panel of lawyers to provide the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court - which reviews and grants the government's secret requests for communications records - with guidance on privacy and civil liberties, technology and legal matters. The measures also would declassify FISA opinions and allow technology companies a range of options to describe how they respond to national security orders.

"It enhances civil liberties protections, increases transparency for both American businesses and the government, ends the bulk collection of data, and provides national security officials targeted tools to keep America safe from foreign enemies," the House sponsors' statement says.

Civil Liberties Groups React

The civil liberties community is split on the legislation. The Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union both see flaws in the measures. But CDT, nonetheless, endorses them.

The CDT concedes the legislation is not as comprehensive as it would prefer, and leaves several problems unaddressed. For instance, it fails to limit the government's retention of information about individuals with no connection to a suspect or foreign power. "CDT supports the USA Freedom Act of 2015, though we hope Congress improves it - particularly by requiring the government to destroy data collected about innocent people and strengthening transparency," said Harley Geiger, CDT senior counsel and advocacy director. "Congress should view passage of this bill as an important first step toward critical reform, but only the first step."

But the ACLU sees the bills' limits as defects that makes the legislation unacceptable. "The disclosures of the last two years make clear that we need wholesale reform," said Jameel Jaffer, the group's deputy legal director, according to The Hill. "Congress should let Section 215 sunset as it's scheduled to, and then it should turn to reforming the other surveillance authorities that have been used to justify bulk collection."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced a competing measure last week that would reauthorize the Patriot Act without making any changes.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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