USA Freedom Act Reforms NSA Bulk Data Collection

The US Senate has authorised wide ranging reforms of the bulk data collection activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

Senators voted 67-32 to pass the USA Freedom Act, which had overwhelmingly cleared the House of Representatives.

It comes just days after the expiry of a key provision (Section 215) of the Patriot Act, passed in October 2001 after the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centre on September 11, despite attempts by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who sponsored a bill that could have extended this data harvesting authorisation until December 31 2020.

Senate Vote

This double blow to the data gathering powers of US intelligence services means that telecom companies in the United States now have the responsibility for the controversial phone records collection program.

The NSA reportedly shut down the bulk collection of US phone records at 8pm ET on Sunday 31 May. However the new bill calls for a grace period of six months to “transition” the program so the phone companies remain the repositories of metadata they generate. The dragnet is now set to relaunch just to be shut down again in December.

The American Civil Liberties Union has welcomed the passage of the USA Freedom Act, but warned that that there were many more “intrusive and overbroad” surveillance powers still in the US surveillance locker.

“This is the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978, and its passage is an indication that Americans are no longer willing to give the intelligence agencies a blank check. It’s a testament to the significance of the Snowden disclosures and also to the hard work of many principled legislators on both sides of the aisle,” Jameel Jaffer, the group’s deputy legal director, was quoted by the Guardian newspaper as saying in a statement.

Transition phase

The crucial vote for the USA Freedom Act came almost two years to the day since the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed to the world the scale of the snooping activities of the NSA.

However some civil rights bodies continue to argue that the USA Freedom Act does not go far enough to curb the wide-ranging US government surveillance programmes disclosed by Snowden.

Last month, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the NSA bulk collection of phone records was illegal – a key landmark for the NSA’s activities, and overturns a ruling in December 2013 which cleared the process, known as Prism.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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