Civil Liberties

Senate Takes Stab at NSA Reform. Can It Do Better Than the House?



In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill to rein-in National Security Agency surveillance that was so watered down that its own sponsor, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), commented, "I wish it more closely resembled the bill I originally introduced." Now the Senate considers its own version of the USA Freedom Act, with an attempt to remedy the flaws that drove many privacy advocates to condemn the approved legislation.

The Senate's bill comes courtesy of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), In a floor statement, he acknowledges that he "continue[s] to prefer the original version of the USA FREEDOM Act" that he crafted with Sensenbrenner, but that he has to work with what he has—which means something that can be reconciled with the weak-tea legislation passed by the House. He claims that the reworked bill "ensures that the government cannot rely on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the FISA pen register and trap and trace device statute, or the national security letter statutes to engage in the indiscriminate collection of Americans' private records."

The American Civil Liberties Union's Neema Singh Guliani notes that the proposal is "not perfect, and it only deals with one narrow surveillance authority," but says that it really is an improvement.

You might remember that one of our main criticisms of the House-passed version of the USA Freedom Act was that it contained a broad definition of "specific selection term" (SST), which, simply put, is the term that the government uses to describe the records it wants to collect. As it was approved in the House, that definition could be abused to permit the collection of everyone's records in an entire area code or zip code, even an entire network server.

The new version of the bill creates an exhaustive list of permissible SSTs for certain programs. If the new version works properly, the government will no longer be able to abuse the provision that led to the collection of the call detail records of virtually everyone in America.

For programs without an exhaustive list of SSTs, the bill contains language indicating that the SSTs must be narrowly limited, and it explicitly prohibits broad SSTs based on, for example, an entire city or telephone service provider.

That's something, but…Note that the USA Freedom Act only addresses surveillance under Section 215 of the Patriot Act—snooping carried out under any other authority isn't touched.

Baby steps.