On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the USA FREEDOM Act, legislation that bans bulk collection under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act as well as other authorities, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) pen/trap statute and national security letters (NSL) by an overwhelming majority of 338 to 88. ARL is pleased that the House of Representatives has passed stronger reform than its 2014 version and considers this development a step forward in surveillance reform.
Since 2006, the National Security Agency (NSA) has engaged in the practice of bulk collection of phone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, also known as the “library records” or “business records” provision. The 2015 USA FREEDOM Act, backed by the White House, specifically addresses this issue and prohibits bulk collection, only permitting limited surveillance orders that focus on a specific selection term. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also addressed this issue recently, ruling that the NSA’s practice of bulk collection exceeded the authority under Section 215 and therefore unlawful.
The 2015 version of the USA FREEDOM Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives also includes several amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and transparency measures, representing an improvement over the version passed during the last Congress. The bill will now go to the Senate and must be considered quickly, given the upcoming expiration date of certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act, including Section 215.
While the version passed today by the House of Representatives includes better reforms to surveillance practices than in the 2014 bill, the USA FREEDOM Act is just one step forward in a series of necessary reforms. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s recent unanimous decision that the NSA’s bulk collection practices exceeded the scope of authority granted under Section 215 demonstrates the egregiousness of the NSA’s interpretation of its authority and the willingness of FISC to approve such broad application of the law. Congress should take care to ensure that provisions under USA FREEDOM Act are not similarly interpreted in an overly-broad manner by the NSA to infringe on the privacy rights of those in the United States. ARL looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to ensure that privacy rights are respected and hopes that additional reforms will be made.