Privacy Advocates, Tech Companies Call USA Freedom Act ‘Ineffective’

It may not go as far as many reform advocates wanted, but the USA Freedom Act has been called a step in the right direction by the American Civil Liberties Union. However, that was before even more changes were made to make the language of the bill even more ambiguous.

Though the bill was initially crafted to completely end the NSA’s data collection program, along with other reforms to intelligence gathering in the U.S., it was amended and scaled back to broaden support in the House. The changes worked, though, because the USA Freedom Act was approved by House lawmakers on Thursday, 303-121.

The bill was written by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), author of the Patriot Act. He believes that the NSA’s surveillance and data collection programs have gone beyond the purpose of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and needed to be restricted.

“The days of the NSA indiscriminately vacuuming more data than it can store will end with the USA Freedom Act,” Sensenbrenner said.

Not exactly.

The amended version of the bill, which went through even more changes in the days leading up to the floor vote, leaves plenty of loopholes for the NSA to get around. In fact, major tech companies like Facebook and Google recently pulled their support for the legislation because they believe scaling back restrictions on “back door” searches of Americans, and limiting measures for increased transparency and accountability rendered the bill ineffective.

On Tuesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization that “champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development,” published its reasons for not supporting the bill. Specifically, the EFF cited the broader language adopted to win over more supporters:

“In particular, we are concerned with the new definition of “specific selection term,” which describes and limits who or what the NSA is allowed to surveil. The new definition is incredibly more expansive than previous definitions. Less than a week ago, the definition was simply “a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account.” While that definition was imperfect, the new version is far broader.1 The new version not only adds the undefined words “address” and “device,” but makes the list of potential selection terms open-ended by using the term “such as.” Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collection, but given the government’s history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can’t be relied on to protect our freedoms.”

This is what “bipartisanship” looks like in Washington, though. Members of Congress can only agree to support a bill when it doesn’t actually do anything to change things.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged to take up the bill this summer, but he is concerned about how much the language of the bill has been scaled back. His concerns are shared with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

However, the showdown that took place between the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee in the House could happen in the Senate as well. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein is an outspoken supporter of NSA spying programs and will likely want to  narrow reform efforts even more.

Photo Credit: AP