Washington — After years of controversy over mass surveillance by the U.S. government, and lengthy negotiations on the reform of those practices, the Senate has passed the USA FREEDOM Act with a 67 to 32 vote.
This legislation permanently ends the bulk collection of phone records by the NSA and will provide greater transparency and oversight with respect to the conduct of other surveillance measures that are under continued debate. This is the same surveillance program that was found illegal by a federal appeals court just last month. The provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that had been misinterpreted to allow for that call records collection program expired this past weekend after a last-minute attempt to extend them failed in the Senate.
The Patriot Act, which passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, was controversial long before Edward Snowden revealed just how extensive the scope of the secret mass surveillance programs conducted by the intelligence community really were. His revelations made evident that many of the programs were implemented in sweeping and unanticipated ways. The programs as implemented appear to have exceeded the original parameters of both their authorizing statutes and the constraints of the Constitution, and were in excess of what most citizens realized or believed necessary.
In addition to the harm caused to our open society and legal system by such sweeping violations of privacy, the subsequent negative association between these dragnet programs and the technology companies coerced into complying with them has harmed the competitiveness of U.S. digital industry on a global scale.
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, civil liberties groups and the technology industry have united in a series of attempts to begin reforming the government’s array of bulk collection programs and the legal authorities underpinning their use by the intelligence community. Although prior versions of the USA Freedom Act had passed the House, they suffered last-minute modifications that weakened reform provisions, and subsequently failed in the Senate several times over the last two years. The Senate’s approval of the Freedom Act today is the result of a hard-fought compromise, bicameral and bipartisan in nature, aimed at beginning to rein in the surveillance powers of the U.S. government for the first time in a generation.
The Computer & Communications Industry Association has advocated against government overreach on surveillance for more than a decade and has testified when surveillance programs were up for renewal over the years. The following can be attributed to CCIA President & CEO Ed Black:
“The USA Freedom Act is not a complete panacea, and serves only as the first step in what will prove to be a lengthy and difficult process to reform the mass surveillance programs in use by the U.S. government. However, it does much to end the bulk collection of Americans’ data across a number of authorities, provides for significant privacy reporting by the private sector, the intelligence community, and secret FISA court, and should lead to improved oversight of surveillance programs by our citizens.
“While it is inherently tempting for governments to want to use technology to gather all information possible, those who wish to live in a free society must not allow that to become the default policy. Today’s vote is a tangible victory for citizens around the world, and a step toward restoring trust in the U.S. government and the ability of lawmakers to do what is right in the face of tremendous political pressure. It also begins the process of rebuilding the confidence of Internet users worldwide in American providers of digital services.
“This vote is the result of years of work across partisan lines by members of Congress and their staff to put forward balanced reforms that protect Americans from both terrorism and government intrusion. That is a challenging but necessary step for our democracy, and in today’s political climate it is worth celebrating this victory, which will hopefully put America on a stronger, more sustainable path.”