The U.S. House of Representatives on May 22 passed legislation (H.R. 3361) to end the National Security Administration’s domestic surveillance programs, under which the agency has been able to collect and store as much as five years of phone records. Under the measure, phone records would be held by telephone carriers, and the government would have to get an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in order to compel the carriers to search the records for counterterrorism investigations.
Passing the bill “is a first step and not a final step in our efforts to reform surveillance,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the chief sponsor of the bill. “We have turned the tables on the NSA and can say to them: we are watching you.”
The bill largely codifies an agreement that Facebook, Apple, and other companies reached with the Department of Justice to disclose details about how often they turn over data about their users in response to government national security requests. It also largely reflects changes announced by President Barack Obama in a fact sheet detailing administration efforts to require federal agencies seeking call records to obtain an order from the FISC with specified target information prior to collecting data.
Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107-56) allows federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to request an order from the FISC requiring a person or company to produce any tangible information if there are reasonable grounds to believe that materials are relevant to a foreign intelligence, international terrorism, or counter-espionage investigation. The House-passed legislation does not preclude the collection of large volumes of information, but it requires that any collection be done pursuant to a court order.
The NSA reforms must still be approved by the Senate, where the Intelligence Committee held a hearing on the issue on June 5. The President supports the legislation, according to a statement of administration policy
issued by the Office of Management and Budget, because its “significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system.” However, some companies and privacy groups continue to oppose the reforms because they would still allow the government to collect records that identify “a person, entity, account, address or device,” which critics say is too broad.