The USA Freedom Act: What's to Come and What You Need to Know

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The USA Freedom Act: What's to Come and What You Need to Know

(Image: Electronic Frontier Foundation/flickr/cc)

The USA Freedom Act, the leading contender for NSA reform, is set for a vote this week. The bill has some problems, but is a major step forward for surveillance reform. That's why we're asking you to call your Senator and urge them to support the USA Freedom Act. Here's a rundown of what's to come, what you need to know, and what may happen this week:

What is the USA Freedom Act and How Did we Get Here?

The USA Freedom Act is a bill that was first proposed last year by Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner. The original version of the bill limited the NSA's call records collection program, introduced a special advocate into the secretive court overseeing the spying, mandated much needed transparency requirements, and included significant reform of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FISAA), the law used to collect Americans’ communications in bulk.

It took several months, but the original version of the bill was finally taken up by the House of Representatives in May. Unfortunately, prior to a vote on the original bill in May, the House made significant, last-minute changes that watered down the bill’s privacy protections. Nevertheless, the House passed a new—weaker—“USA Freedom Act” against the protests of privacy advocates. In response, Senator Leahy vowed to move a stronger bill forward that provided meaningful surveillance reform.

What resulted is the current version of the USA Freedom Act, which was released in July of this year. The current version does many of the same things as the original bill except it doesn't offer significant reform of Section 702 of FISAA. The current version is the bill up for debate this week.

Where We're Going

The Senate will hold two major votes this week. On Tuesday night, it will vote to move forward and debate the USA Freedom Act. Senator Leahy needs 60 Senators to vote in favor of moving forward to debate the bill. After obtaining the 60 votes, the Senate will then debate the bill and any amendments, and hold another vote on Wednesday or Thursday on the final bill text.

There is a very real possibility that the Senate—just like the House—may try to weaken the bill. That's why when you call your Senator it's important to stress that Senators support the USA Freedom Act and oppose any amendments that would weaken the bill.

What You Can Do

Help us get to 60 votes by calling your Senator now. This is the most important step since the Senate must obtain 60 votes before it will begin to debate the USA Freedom Act. During the debate, we urge Senators to offer amendments that strengthen the bill. These amendments would:

  1. Ensure the illegal "backdoor" search of Americans' communications ends;
  2. Grant additional power to the "special advocate" in the secret FISA court;
  3. Shorten the FISA Amendments Act sunset to 2015;
  4. Enhance the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board powers;
  5. Provide Americans a clear path to assert legal standing to sue the government for privacy abuses; and,
  6. Ban the NSA from undermining commonly used encryption standards.

After the debate, a final vote on the final text will probably occur Wednesday or Thursday.

Time to Pass NSA Surveillance Reform

The first hurdle to overcome this week is the Tuesday vote. Once the Senate comes up with 60 votes, there may be a whirlwind of amendments altering the bill on Wednesday or Thursday. Stay tuned to our twitter account and home page for any analysis or statements on the amendments. A final vote on the bill will most likely occur Wednesday night or Thursday. And as we said last week when Senate Majority Leader Reid moved the USA Freedom Act forward: We urge the Senate to pass the bill without any amendments that will weaken it.

Mark Jaycox

Mark Jaycox is a Policy Analyst and Legislative Assistant for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His issues include user privacy, civil liberties, EULAs, and current legislation or policy rising out of Washington, DC

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