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This Legislation Could Right (Some of) the Patriot Act's Wrongs

The Senate takes its first stab at real surveillance reform.
Image: Patrick Leahy

It's pretty clear that, well over a year after Edward Snowden initially exposed it, the National Security Administration has spent much of the last decade spying on huge swaths of a population that it wasn't supposed to. Well, legislation being considered by the Senate would finally take a step toward ending bulk collection of would-be private data and the loopholes in the Patriot Act that originally allowed for it.


On Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would completely end mass surveillance under Section 215 of the Patriot Act—a loophole in the law that effectively let NSA agents scoop up metadata and other information about American citizens.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because earlier this summer, the House of Representatives also passed the USA Freedom Act—after a House committee completely gutted any teeth it had and also added in new loopholes that would let bulk surveillance continue unscathed.

Leahy's bill looks much closer to the one that many civil liberty groups initially endorsed before the House had at it, and it's expected to go straight to the Senate floor, where it will have less chance of being ruined by back room White House dealings or in closed committee hearings.

"If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act 13 years ago," Leahy said in a floor statement. "This is an historic opportunity, and I am grateful that the bill has the support of the administration, a wide range of privacy and civil liberties groups, and the technology industry."

Indeed, the bill has been vetted by several civil liberty groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Access. In a blog post, Access lawyer Amie Stepanovich wrote that Leahy's bill "definitively ends bulk collection of US persons' telephone records, brings US law closer in line with international human rights norms, [and] represents the first step in comprehensive reform of the US surveillance state."

Basically, the bill would force the NSA to narrowly tailor who it can conduct surveillance on, prevent it from scooping up large swaths of data from any given cell phone carrier or geographical area, and help open up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (a little bit, at least), increasing the amount of information the FISA Court has to release to the public about the NSA's surveillance requests.

Now, the biggest questions are whether it'll pass the Senate (or whether it'll even be taken up before Congress goes on a long recess on Friday), and whether the House will have the guts to pass a bill that more closely looks like real surveillance reform, not the watered-down nonsense it put through earlier this year.