Posted by on July 31, 2014 in Blog

By Jad Ireifej
Summer Intern, 2014

AAI was a signee on a letter that encouraged top members of the Senate to swiftly pass the unadulterated form of the USA Freedom Act that was presented Tuesday. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), the Senate Judiciary Chair, unveiled the Freedom Act and the bill will lead to stricter surveillance restrictions, if passed. A version of the bill passed through the House in May, but with compromises that watered down privacy protections. The bill that was brought before the Senate Tuesday is uncompromised and “would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago,” Leahy said.

Signees of the letter, mainly IT advocates and civil liberty organizations, believe that though this bill may not go far enough in curbing government surveillance, it is a step in the right direction.

The Freedom Act was first introduced in October by Leahy and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) in response to the Edward Snowden revelations that exposed the extent of NSA surveillance. The bill would end the NSA’s ability to bulk record phone calls and impose new transparency requirements on intelligence agencies.

House Republicans fearing that the bill would limit the government’s intelligence capabilities, before signing off on the bill added broad and vague language that would, potentially, allow the intelligence community to circumvent the legislation. This, naturally, was unacceptable to anti-surveillance supporters, both in the government and outside of it, and warranted the letter.

Privacy advocates feel that the surveillance conducted by the United States government is in clear violation of the 4th amendment which prohibits unreasonable search and seizures. The NSA has been keeping databases on the identity, location, and duration of all calls in the United States, which critics identify as a clear overstep of constitutional rights. The bill would drastically limit this “bulk” data that can be collected by the government, specifically, service provider information and the ZIP code of the call.

Technology companies, on the other hand, are feeling the economic consequences of the government’s surveillance. The United States’ tech industry has been increasingly avoided by the rest of the globe as other countries fear NSA instituted ‘backdoors’ in products that can be used for data collection. The legislation will prohibit these points of access and tech companies will be permitted to reveal the number of national security orders they receive and be more transparent to their customers.

The letter also demands that the increased transparency on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court afforded by the original draft of the legislation remains unaltered in the bill passed by the Senate.

The Freedom Act is supported by the White House and seen as must pass legislation. The bill before the Senate doesn’t include the watered down languages that lead to its passage through the House, and its timing is of concern for its success. The bill will not be able to be voted on before the August recess and can, at earliest, be put to vote in September, which is in the thick of the election cycle and not an ideal time for law making.  

It is no secret that Muslims and Arab Americans are specifically targeted by government surveillance which violates their constitutional rights. As ACLU Legislative Director Laura Murphy put it, “While this bill is not perfect, it is the beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001”. The American public can only hope that the Freedom Act will remain the step in the right direction that it was designed to be after the Senate is done with it.

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