The US House of Representatives passed a watered down version of the USA Freedom Act today, much to the chagrin of privacy advocate groups that pushed hard for its passage because it had real reforms to the NSA's vast surveillance and information gathering programs. This new version of the bill strips a lot of what was good from the bill and continues to let the NSA conduct business (for the most part) as usual. Rights groups and supporters of the original bill are deeply disappointed with what the House passed today.
"The ban on bulk collection was deliberately watered down to be ambiguous and exploitable," said Harley Geiger, an attorney with the Center for Democracy & Technology. "We withdrew support for USA Freedom when the bill morphed into a codification of large-scale, untargeted collection of data about Americans with no connection to a crime or terrorism."
Meanwhile the White House sees the bill as a success:
"The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed," the White House said.
The measure passed 303 to 121 in the House and the administration is urging the Senate to follow suit, but the good news for those who don't like this bill is that it will not survive the Senate in its current form. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT.), said that the legislation faces a tougher sell in the Senate.
"I was disappointed that the legislation passed today does not include some of the meaningful reforms contained in the original USA Freedom Act," he said. "I will continue to push for these important reforms when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the USA Freedom Act next month."
The legislation passed today puts the data collected by the NSA in the hands of the telecoms where the data comes from. The USA Freedom Act also requires that the NSA get approval for a search from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before demanding that the telecoms hand over metadata. Unfortunately there is no "probable-cause" Fourth Amendment standard required to access the database.
Under the bill's modified language, a database search inquiry is allowed if it is "a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device." This change was lobbied for by the Obama administration at the 11th hour, and is the single biggest reason civil rights groups and scholars objected to the measure. They say the new language is vague and might allow the NSA to capture the metadata of innocent people in violation of their constitutional rights.
"In particular, while the previous bill would have required any request for records to be tied to a clearly defined set of ‘specific selection terms,’ the bill that just passed leaves the definition of 'specific selection terms' open. This could allow for an overly broad and creative interpretation, which is something we've certainly seen from the executive branch and the FISA Court before," said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program.
We will have more on this story as it develops.
Source: Ars Technica