On Tuesday, June 2, just one day after sections of the Patriot Act expired, the U.S. Senate passed a new version of the Freedom Act. The newly passed act is expected to reign in domestic surveillance and change the way that data is collected. However, the passage reauthorizes the National Security Agency’s telecommunications collection which was shut down on June 1 due to the expiration of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Due to the Freedom Act, the collection will continue for another six months because of a “transition period” that the Freedom Act allows.
The Freedom Act does not address crucial aspects of the NSA’s spying capabilities. The 2008 FISA Amendments Act allows government access to and collection of citizens’ communication histories on sites such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft. Executive Order 12333 also allows for the same capabilities regarding international communication. With both, the government may collect actual content and not just metadata, which the Patriot Act allows. Even though less actual data is gathered with Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Section 215 was ruled unconstitutional last month because metadata can be just as harmful to citizens. Yet broader gathering programs still remain legal.
Other sections of the Patriot Act allow the government to search people’s homes without their notification, label members of activist groups as terrorists, monitor people’s emails and Internet history, put immigrants in jail indefinitely, and share private information about citizens with the Central Intelligence Agency. These are only a few of the abilities that the Patriot Act grants the government.
Along with the six-month “transition period,” the sections of the Patriot Act that expired on June 1 will not necessarily be gone forever. According to The New York Times, “All three of the expired laws contained a so-called grandfather-clause that permits their authority to continue indefinitely for any investigation that had begun before June 1.”
The passing of the Freedom Act is the first large surveillance reform bill since 1978. It is meant to curtail some of the vast spying inflicted on U.S. citizens. However, the Freedom Act does not halt enough of the programs that violate Americans’ privacy.
“The bill leaves many of the government’s most intrusive and overbroad surveillance powers untouched, and it makes only very modest adjustments to disclosure and transparency requirements,” stated Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director, after calling the passage of the Freedom Act a “milestone” and an “indication that Americans are no longer willing to give the intelligence agencies a blank check.”
Longtime supporter of domestic surveillance reform, Ore. Senator Ron Wyden is pleased with the Act, tweeting on June 2, “Passage of USA Freedom is the most significant victory for Americans’ privacy rights in more than a decade.”
However, Wyden recognizes that while the Freedom Act might restrain some spying, the U.S. is a long way away from not being a security state. After the vote, he told reporters, “We’re going to try to close the backdoor search loophole – this is part of the FISA Act and is going to be increasingly important, because Americans are going to have their emails swept up increasingly as global communications systems begin to merge.”
Several senators fear that the Freedom Act will ultimately hurt the U.S. because of the perceived lessening of security. However, much of the communications data that is collected is not relevant to the safety of the U.S. “Incidental collection,” which is legal, is more common than most people think it is. According to a 2014 investigation by The Washington Post, “Ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike, far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from U.S. digital networks”
Since 9/11, the security programs on which the U.S. has spent billions of dollars “cannot claim to have thwarted an attack in nearly 14 years of existence,” according to The New York Times.
While the passage of the Freedom Act is a symbolic victory that encourages more domestic surveillance reform in the future, it will not curtail spying nearly as much as the U.S. would need if its citizens are to be free.