Facing a June 1 deadline to prevent the expiration of a “business records” provision under the USA PATRIOT Act, Congress moved swiftly to approve legislation (H.R. 2048) to reauthorize the controversial surveillance program with new limits to address privacy concerns. The House of Representatives approved the legislation on May 13, and the Senate followed suit on June 2, thereby sending the measure to the president for his signature.
The legislation, known as the “USA FREEDOM Act,” strikes “a reasonable compromise balancing security and privacy – allowing us to continue to protect the country while implementing various reforms, including prohibiting bulk collection through the use of Section 215, FISA pen registers, and National Security Letters,” the White House press secretary said in a May 31 statement.
Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act permits the National Security Agency and other government agencies to compel the bulk production of business records, such as phone metadata, subject to an order obtained from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The reauthorization legislation extends Section 215 until the end of 2019. However, it prohibits the large-scale, indiscriminate collection of records to protect civil liberties while giving the government new national security tools, including a new call detail records program that is closely overseen by the FISC, and permitting the government to track foreign terrorists when they enter the United States.
Following House passage of the bill, a divided Senate struggled in its efforts to find a path forward. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who supported the current program, initially proposed legislation (S. 1357) providing a two-month extension of the existing bulk collection authority. When he was unable to garner the 60 votes need to pass his proposal, the Senate on May 31 voted to proceed on the House-passed bill. However, due to parliamentary obstacles, final passage did not occur until June, two days after the program expired.
“Today the American people are now safe from the federal government’s bulk collection of their personal data,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). “It wasn’t easy. It took longer than it should have. But the Senate’s passage of the USA Freedom Act today is a huge win for national security and the Fourth Amendment.”
The action by Congress came on the heels of a public survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center and released on May 20, which found the majority of Americans support greater limits on government surveillance programs, as well as limits on the length of time that a wide array of organizations, both public and private, can retain records of their activities and communications.
“Online service providers are among the least trusted entities when it comes to keeping information private and secure,” noted the authors of the report on the survey. When asked about search engine providers, online video sites, social media sites, and online advertisers, the majority felt “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that these entities could protect their data.