US Senate votes to reduce government’s mass surveillance powers

US Senate votes to reduce government’s mass surveillance powers

[JURIST] The US Senate [official website] approved the USA Freedom Act [HR 2048 materials] on Tuesday, which reduces the federal government’s surveillance of Americans’ phone records. Shortly after the approval, President Barack Obama [backgrounder] signed the measure into law, stating [press releases]:

[M]y Administration will work expeditiously to ensure our national security professionals again have the full set of vital tools they need to continue protecting the country. Just as important, enactment of this legislation will strengthen civil liberty safeguards and provide greater public confidence in these programs, including by prohibiting bulk collection through the use of Section 215, [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] pen registers, and National Security Letters and by providing the American people with additional transparency measures.

The legislation is a significant departure from national security measures implemented 14 years ago just after the 9/11 attacks [JURIST backgrounder]. The passage of the bill will allow the government to restart and modify surveillance operations, only with new restrictions. The legislation will require the government to obtain a warrant to collect phone metadata from telecommunications companies in addition to making the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court [official website], which reviews the warrant requests, more transparent.

The bill’s passage was driven largely by efforts to reform the National Security Agency (NSA) [official website] that came after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden [JURIST archive] leaked information about the bulk collection of phone records in 2013. In May the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Patriot Act does not authorize [JURIST report] the NSA to collect millions of Americans’ phone records. In March rights groups filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] in federal court against the NSA, alleging that one of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs violates privacy rights and threatens free communication. In 2013 US lawmakers were pushing for a review [JURIST report] of the government’s surveillance activity despite reports revealing phone and internet monitoring. Several human rights groups have taken legal action in challenging the NSA.