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USA FREEDOM Act: A Closer Look at the Initiative to Reform Government Surveillance

Updated on June 30, 2015
Under the USA Freedom Act, phone call metadata will remain with phone companies but can be subpoenaed by the government.
Under the USA Freedom Act, phone call metadata will remain with phone companies but can be subpoenaed by the government. | Source
President Barack Obama talks to members of the news media in the Oval Office at the White House May 29, 2015, calling the USA FREEDOM Act an essential piece of legislation for fighting terrorism.
President Barack Obama talks to members of the news media in the Oval Office at the White House May 29, 2015, calling the USA FREEDOM Act an essential piece of legislation for fighting terrorism. | Source

On June 2, 2015, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015, H.R.2048, became law that modified several provisions of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The title of the act stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act.” The act was introduced “to reform the authorities of the Federal Government to require the production of certain business records, conduct electronic surveillance, use pen registers and trap and trace devices, and use other forms of information gathering for foreign intelligence, counterterrorism, and criminal purposes, and for other purposes.” [1]

The Patriot Act was passed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which gave law enforcement and intelligence officials more ways to deter terrorist threats, but, under Section 215 of the act, law enforcement and intelligence officials were able to “secretly authorize a sweeping collection of Americans’ phone records.” [2] The disclosure of this program in June 2013 by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden led to create changes that would end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) information collection while preserving access to records of terrorist suspects. Congress, on both sides of the political spectrum, recognize that maintaining the NSA’s authorities under the Patriot Act might not be reasonable, which led to a bipartisan group to introduce a “balanced approach” aimed to stop the NSA from collecting phone records of Americans. [2]

What has changed under the USA FREEDOM Act?

The act’s key elements are the reformation of “how Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) can be used by the NSA to support their operations.” [3] This new law requires phone companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, to collect and store telephone records the same way they’ve always done, but instead of routinely giving U.S. intelligence agencies such data, the companies would be required to turn over the information “only in response to a government request approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”[4] Under the new law, if a phone company is subpoenaed by the FISA Court, the NSA can obtain the metadata of the targeted individual, like they have always done, but also obtain every number in contact with the individual and every number in contact with that wider circle.[5] Phone companies also have the right to publicly disclose the total number of orders that request the metadata that they receive from the FISA Court.[5]

Divided views on the USA FREEDOM Act

Supporters of the USA FREEDOM Act state that the act was to end the bulk collection of Americans’ communications records by the NSA, balancing national security and privacy.[6] Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat co-sponsor of the act, stated that the USA FREEDOM Act is “‘a path forward that has the support of the administration, privacy groups, the technology industry – and most importantly, the American people.’”[2] Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., a Republican lead sponsor of the act and one of its authors, said the act is “‘to rein in government overreach and rebuild trust with the American people.’”[2]

However opponents of the act state the act doesn’t go far enough because the NSA does more than operate under the authority of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.[3] They would have rather see Section 215 of the Patriot Act just expire as it did on June 1. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, stated, “‘the sky isn’t going to fall for the FBI if Section 215 sunsets. The government has multiple other authorities it can use to collect records about suspected terrorists.’” [2]

According to the survey below conducted by Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans believe that they should be able to maintain their privacy, especially when it comes to knowing what information about them is being collected and who is doing the collecting.[8]

High Percentage of Americans Hold Strong Views About Privacy

In response to the following question: “Privacy means different things to different people today. In thinking about all of your daily interactions – both online and offline – please tell me how important each of the following are to you."
In response to the following question: “Privacy means different things to different people today. In thinking about all of your daily interactions – both online and offline – please tell me how important each of the following are to you." | Source

Senator and 2016 Presidential Candidate Rand Paul, an avid opponent of the USA FREEDOM Act, had conducted a 10-hour filibuster on May 20th in the Senate, which allowed him to debate against the renewal of the Patriot Act and the NSA’s illegal spying program. During the filibuster he argued that “The bulk collection of our records, this invasion of our privacy, isn’t even working. We aren’t capturing terrorists that we wouldn’t have caught otherwise by this information.” According to the Washington Times, NSA had even considered abandoning the program because some officials believed the “costs outweighed the meager counterterrorism benefits.”[7]

What do you think?

Do you think the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 has effectively balanced national security and the right to privacy?

See results

References

1. H.R.2048 - USA FREEDOM Act of 2015. (n.d.). Retrieved from Congress.gov: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2048

2. Nakashima, E. (n.d.). With Deadline Near, Lawmakers Introduce Bill to End NSA Program. Retrieved from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/with-deadline-near-lawmakers-introduce-bill-to-end-nsa-program/2015/04/28/8fd1cf6e-edb4-11e4-a55f-38924fca94f9_story.html?tid=hybrid_linearcol_1_na

3. Wilhelm, A. (n.d.). Proposed USA FREEDOM Act Would Dramatically Curtail the NSA's Surveillance. Retrieved from Tech Crunch: http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/29/proposed-usa-freedom-act-would-dramatically-curtail-the-nsas-pervasive-surveillance/

4. Zengerle, P., & Strobel, W. (n.d.). Obama's signature on the Freedom Act reverses security policy that's been in place since 9/11. Retrieved from Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/obamas-signature-on-the-freedom-act-reverses-security-policy-thats-been-in-place-since-911-2015-6

5. Shahani, A. (n.d.). Phone Carriers Tight-Lipped On How They Will Comply With New Surveillance Law. Retrieved from NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/06/04/411870819/phone-carriers-are-tight-lipped-over-law-that-overhauls-nsa-surveillance

6. Risen, T. (n.d.). 'Patriot Act' Author Seeks 'USA Freedom Act' to Rein in NSA. Retrieved from U.S. News: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/10/10/patriot-act-author-seeks-usa-freedom-act-to-rein-in-nsa

7. Dilanian, K. (n.d.). AP Exclusive: NSA weighed ending phone program before leak. Retrieved from The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/mar/30/ap-exclusive-nsa-weighed-ending-phone-program-befo/?page=all

8. Madden, M., & Rainie, L. (n.d.). Americans' Attitudes About Privacy, Security and Surveillance. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/05/Privacy-and-Security-Attitudes-5.19.15_FINAL.pdf

© 2015 Sarah Ehling

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