NSA Bulk Data Sunset Draws Mixed Reviews

PATRIOT Act foes were celebrating the midnight Sunday (May 31) expiration of the Sec. 215 bulk phone metadata provision after the Senate failed to pass either a short-term, renewal, or the revisions in the USA FREEDOM Act. On the other side, supporters of USA FREEDOM were celebrating Sunday night's 77-17 vote to invoke cloture, which paves the way for an actual up or down vote on that legislation.

The Senate signaled it would take up Monday, and likely eventually pass, some version of USA FREEDOM, but in the interim the NSA authority to do bulk collection has expired.

"The expiration of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act signals a welcome and overdue end to the mass surveillance of Americans' phone calls, emails, and Internet use, as well as the restoration of the Fourth Amendment protections that secure our private lives from unjustified government scrutiny," said the American Library Association. "Librarians were one of the first groups to raise the alarm about Section 215's threat to individual civil liberties, and we will continue to fight to protect Americans' right to purchase and borrow books and use the Internet without fear that the government is reading over their shoulder."

CREDO, Demand Progress and Fight for the Future, which had organized a protest against both an effort to do a short-term straight renewal of the bulk collection authority and USA FREEDOM, was celebrating its short-term victory but slammed the Senate's decision to move to a USA FREEDOM vote.

"The expiration of key PATRIOT Act provisions -- even if only temporary -- is a victory for the countless civil liberties activists in every congressional district in the country who, since [NSA contractor] Edward Snowden blew the whistle on government surveillance, have fought for real reform. It demonstrates that the public can win battles in Congress that just a few years ago we were barely able to fight at all," the groups said in a joint statement.

As for USA FREEDOM, they said the Senate had failed the American people. "Despite overwhelming evidence that Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act violates our civil liberties without making us safer, the Senate overwhelmingly bowed to pressure from surveillance agencies and voted to advance a bill that would renew their illegal and ineffective mass surveillance authorities under the PATRIOT Act," they said.

The ACLU agreed. "Today’s vote, at least a temporary sunset, and the debate of the last few weeks are a reflection of strong support — across the political spectrum — for meaningful and comprehensive reform of the surveillance laws," it said in a statement. "Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration.”

That bill does not end bulk collection, but narrows what can be collected, adds some transparency about how it is done, leaves the information in the hands of phone companies rather on government servers, provides some liability protection for companies that let the government inspect the metadata, and provides for at least the possibility of challenging the FISA court on a decision to allow surveillance.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association has fought the unreasonable expansion of government surveillance for more than a decade. The following can be attributed to CCIA President & CEO Ed Black:

“In moving this legislation forward, Congress and the public have had a more thorough and much needed debate on the parameters of acceptable surveillance in a democratic and free society than we have had in a long time," said Computer & Communications Industry Association President Ed Black. "Congress should be commended for their bipartisan efforts to find acceptable compromises where easy answers are elusive."

“The USA Freedom Act contains some useful reforms, but it must only be the first step in an ongoing effort to monitor and reasonably limit the tendency to continually expand surveillance powers.  It's passage will send a clear signal to U.S. citizens and Internet users around the world that the U.S. has listened to surveillance concerns, and responded with more transparency and tools that allow improved oversight over the remaining targeted records program.  These measures are crucial for citizens in free societies."

The Information Technology Industry Council urged the Senate to pass USA FREEDOM ASAP.

“We again urge Senators to pass the USA Freedom Act and eschew any harmful amendments. Doing so would end indiscriminate bulk collection of data and bring much needed transparency to the process by allowing tech companies to report information about the government orders they receive for access to data. Adopting these reforms is a critical step in restoring America’s reputation as the leader in protecting the privacy and security of user data.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who had supported renewing the PATRIOT Act authorities and opposed bringing USA FREEDOM to a vote, said letting them expire had removed a "cornerstone" of terrorist protections.

“After tonight," he said late Sunday, "there is no guarantee that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies will have all the tools they need to protect the American people in the face of a growing terrorist threat. Allowing any of these programs to expire is a mistake, but that’s what is happening as a consequence of the reckless spreading of misinformation and political posturing. Our country is now poised to be less safe and Americans at greater risk from growing terrorist threats.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.