Legislation to curb government surveillance moved forward in the House on Wednesday, a move cautiously welcomed by privacy advocates who say it's still lacking needed reforms.
A revised version of the USA Freedom Act, put forth by by Patriot act author Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), received bipartisan approval from the House Judiciary Committee in yesterday's vote, passing unanimously.
"The version of the USA Freedom Act that passed the Committee today bans the bulk collection of all types of communications metadata in the U.S., ensures that bulk collection cannot be shifted to another statute, and preserves the requirement that the government obtain court approval prior to surveillance activity," Harley Geiger, Senior Counsel with the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), said in a statement.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, praised this "first bill to rein in government spying and bulk collection of our most private phone and digital information" as "a historic turn of events in our government's approach to counterterrorism policies. She also called the vote "a direct result" of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations.
Yet the legislation still falls short, anti-surveillance groups emphasized.
For example, it "does not make substantial improvements to Section 702 of FISA, the basis for the PRISM program," CDT's GEiger continued -- a problem also pointed out by Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who explained:
The bill fails to fix the “backdoor loophole,” in which the NSA interprets the law to allow searches of the data collected under Section 702 for the purpose of finding communications of a United States person. Section 702 authorities need to be sharply limited to ensure that collection is only possible for communications to and from a designated target, not merely those who mention a target in a communication. The scope of Section 702 should be limited by requiring a description of who, what, and where the NSA is targeting.
Further, the legislation allows companies to release information about government snooping requests in "broad bands," thereby preventing full disclosure about the scope of government demands. Instead, Opsahl writes, the legislation should serve as a "vital check against government surveillance abuses" by "provid[ing] stronger transparency provisions to ensure that users know, with as much granularity as possible, how and when the government issues orders for user data and how many accounts are affected."
Former NSA employee and whistleblower Thomas Drake also criticized the legislation, denouncing it in an exclusive interview with UPI as "totally compromised." The USA Freedom Act, which absorbs White House proposals, just looks better in the face of the competing legislation, he said.
As Reuters reported, the USA Freedom Act "would end the NSA's gathering information about telephone calls and storing them for at least five years. It would instead leave the records with telephone companies."
So, "it ends up basically outsourcing mass surveillance strategy," Drake said. "We don’t hold [metadata], we don’t create it or manipulate it, we have access to it. So where’s the reform? That’s faux reform," he said.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence advanced the USA Freedom Act on Thursday, and it now heads to the House floor.