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Protesters carried signs at a march against mass surveillance on Oct. 26, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: EFF/Flickr/cc)

Targeting PATRIOT Act Provision, Rights Groups Urge House Dems to Block NSA From Collecting Americans' Phone Records

"Mass surveillance is wrong and dangerous to our democracy."

Jessica Corbett

Stressing the dangers of mass surveillance, a coalition 30 of digital rights, social justice, and civil liberties groups on Monday urged House Democrats to end a provision of the PATRIOT Act that enables the government to collect Americans' phone records.

The organizations' demands were detailed in a letter (pdf) sent Monday to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and the committee's other Democrats, which came alongside a panel discussion on Capitol Hill that featured rights and mass surveillance experts.

"We urge you to oppose any legislation that would reauthorize Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act unless it repeals the government's statutory authority to operate the Call Detail Records ("CDR") program and contains bold reforms to protect individuals against mass surveillance," begins the letter to Democratic lawmakers from groups that collectively represent millions of members.

"Mass surveillance is wrong and dangerous to our democracy. It is antithetical to our core civil liberties and it disproportionately harms the communities historically targeted by racial and religious animus," the letter continues. "No Democrat should vote to grant Donald Trump the power to spy on millions of innocent people in America."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation—which was not part of the letter but is also critical of Section 215—explained in a blog post last month that the U.S. government long used the provision "to conduct a dragnet surveillance program that collected billions of phone records documenting who a person called and for how long they called them—more than enough information for analysts to infer very personal details about a person, including who they have relationships with, and the private nature of those relationships."

After government contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the once-secret NSA operation in 2013 and a federal appeals court ruled in 2015 that the NSA's interpretation of Section 215 was "unprecedented and unwarranted," Congress reauthorized but partly limited the provision by passing the 2015 FREEDOM Act, which was signed into law by former President Barack Obama.

Congress must now decide whether to reauthorize Section 215 or let it sunset on Dec. 15. Despite reports in March that the Trump administration had ended the CDR program after the NSA was forced to purge hundreds of millions of records because some were unlawfully collected, the Trump White House recently requested that Congress reauthorize Section 215—indefinitely.

The administration's request, as the New York Times reported last month, came in the form of a letter to Congress from "Dan Coats in one of his last acts as the director of National Intelligence." The Times noted that Coats' letter was the first time the administration had publicly acknowledged the CDR program was shut down, at least temporarily.

Pointing out that "the expiring provisions cannot survive without Democratic support," Demand Progress policy counsel Sean Vitka said in statement Monday that "if Democrats can't secure an overhaul of the PATRIOT Act, they should use their majority in the House to ensure no reauthorization of Section 215 passes under their watch."

Vitka, who participated in the panel discussion Monday, added that "it would be unconscionable for a Democratic Party-controlled House to extend the power to conduct mass surveillance under this administration, especially given that government's long and continuing history of misusing that power."

Free Press Action government relations director Sandra Fulton, who also joined the panel discussion, concurred. As she put it, "The deeply problematic Patriot Act granted sweeping spying powers that no administration should have, and they're particularly dangerous in the hands of Trump."

"This administration's openly hostile policies are harming the most vulnerable communities in America," she said. "Over the last two years, we've seen leak after leak of documents showing the FBI targeting black protesters fighting for racial justice. More recently we've learned that the Bureau is also spying on folks protesting inhumane immigration policies at the border."

Fulton warned that "unless House and Senate leadership work together to end the CDR and severely limit other Section 215 authorities, this disturbing trend will only worsen under Trump."

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