NSA Hit As Broadest Patriot Act Surveillance Powers Expire

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The US Senate failed to reach a compromise in time to save key Patriot Act surveillance powers

The NSA’s mass collection of electronic records ended on Sunday night, at least temporarily, with the expiry of a key provision of the Patriot Act, passed in October 2001 after the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centre.

The NSA had claimed Section 215 of the Patriot Act as the legal basis for its mass collection of telephone metadata, including information such as the caller and recipient of calls and their duration. Section 215, along with two other sections, expired at midnight on Sunday.

network fibre surveillance data pipes abstract © kentoh Shutterstock

The data-collection programme was first reported in 2006, but at that time the US government denied its existence. In 2013, however, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents confirming that the government had been collecting all phone metadata records from certain telecommunications companies for years.

In the wake of these revelations, President Barack Obama established the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review the NSA’s programmes, and the board found that Section 215 didn’t authorise the NSA’s mass data collection activities, a decision also arrived at by an appeals court panel last month in response to a challenge by civil liberties groups.

The board recommended the NSA’s programme be overhauled so that telcos retain records and make them accessible to the NSA in particular cases, with a court order. The result was the USA Freedom Act, which passed in the US House of Representatives with strong support last month, but which has faced opposition in the Senate, where certain politicians favoured a re-authorisation of Section 215.

In a contentious Sunday session, however, the Senate efforts in favour of Section 215 failed to obtain broad support, resulting in the measure’s expiry that night. Once it became clear that Section 215 would not be re-authorised, the USA Freedom Act gained ground in the Senate, and is likely to be approved in the next few days.

Call for surveillance reform

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, originally opposed the USA Freedom Act, but on Sunday agreed that it was “now the only realistic way forward” for preserving some form of NSA access to telephone records.

The shift is a success for Obama, who in a Saturday address called on Americans to “join me in speaking with one voice to the Senate. Put the politics aside. Put our national security first. Pass the USA Freedom Act—now.”

Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul had also opposed the re-authorisation of Section 215, claiming that the mass data collection programme, affecting individuals who in large part were not suspected of any crime, was a waste of resources. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board had found that the Section 215 data had never resulted in any major case developments, although it had been useful in supporting investigations and developing leads.

Civil rights bodies argued the USA Freedom Act does not go far enough to curb the wide-ranging US government surveillance programmes disclosed by Snowden.

“Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far-reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration,” stated Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington Legislative Office.

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