With the sunset of key spy powers on the near horizon and lawmakers scrambling to save them, privacy and internet freedom groups are dialing up the pressure on Congress to end mass surveillance as we know it.
The Senate will return to Washington, D.C. for a rare session on Sunday, on the heels of a week-long Memorial Day recess. With sections of the Patriot Act barreling toward a 12am June 1 expiration, lawmakers are reportedly scrambling to come up with a last-minute deal to save the law after a series of Senate votes on Friday failed to resolve an impasse.
The debate over the National Security Agency's (NSA) spy powers has some senators pushing to kill the Patriot Act entirely and others advocating for "clean" re-authorization.
Still others—backed by the White House—in favor of the USA Freedom Act, so-called reform legislation that privacy advocates say doesn't go far enough. That bill would renew three expiring Patriot Act powers while ending the NSA's controversial bulk collection of U.S. phone records. Records would be held by phone companies instead.
This week, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) have both floated "compromise" bills in an effort to break Senate gridlock. But neither appears to be getting much traction.
The Hill describes both pieces of legislation:
Burr’s bill, called the FISA Improvements Act, would give the National Security Agency (NSA) two years to give up its bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, while also expanding the FBI’s ability to get communication records and making permanent the three expiring portions of the Patriot Act. It would also allow the Justice Department to force phone companies to keep their records for years, so they could be handed over to the government when needed.
Feinstein’s bill would also allow the government to force phone companies to retain the records.
And, as Kevin Gosztola wrote this week at Firedoglake, Feinstein's bill—modeled after the Espionage Act—"would not only save spying powers but also codify into law a provision that would expressly enable the government to criminalize any national security whistleblower who may choose to follow the footsteps of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden."
According to a coalition of more than 50 privacy and digital rights groups, who sent a letter Thursday to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), both Feinstein's and Burr's measures "contain flaws and omissions that are incompatible with the goal of stopping domestic bulk collection."
Furthermore, the letter adds, "both bills authorize the government to impose a data retention mandate on private businesses, a privacy-threatening measure that is unnecessary and unacceptable."
The Hill described the coalition's missive as "the latest signal that lawmakers are going to have a very tough time pushing anything other than the USA Freedom Act."
Of course, the call from some corners is to let the spy provisions expire altogether.
Passing the USA Freedom Act would result in "few net changes in the government’s ability to invade privacy as it deems necessary, bulk or otherwise," said NSA whistleblower J. Kirk Wiebe on Friday.
"The truth is that USA Freedom does not cover all NSA authorities to collect information," Wiebe explained. "In short, the USA Freedom Act alone does fundamentally very little in terms of significantly constraining the ability of the National Security Agency to perform bulk collection of data about anyone, U.S. citizen or otherwise. We need comprehensive surveillance reform."
Making a similar call, an estimated 10,000 websites on Friday blocked Congress's access to their webpages to protest the Patriot Act and mass spying in general. Led by the digital rights group Fight for the Future, the sites have added code that redirects any visitors from Internet protocol (IP) addresses stemming from Congress away from their site and toward BlackoutCongress.org.
"Congress: This is a blackout," the site reads. "We are blocking your access until you end mass surveillance laws. You have conducted mass surveillance of everyone illegally and are now on record for trying to enact those programs into law. You have presented Americans with the false dichotomy of reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act or passing the USA Freedom Act. The real answer is to end all authorities used to conduct mass surveillance. Until you do, thousands of web sites have blocked your access, and more are joining every day."
Those calling for the Patriot Act's sunset gained a high-profile ally on Friday—the New York Times editorial board. Should the provisions lapse, the board wrote, "That would be perfectly fine."