USA FREEDOM Act Would Curtail NSA Dragnet

Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is introducing a bill that would counteract many of the elements of the US PATRIOT Act that enables the mass collection of data belonging to U.S. Citizens.

UPDATE: Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) is introducing a bill that would counteract many of the elements of the U.S. PATRIOT Act that enables the mass collection of data belonging to U.S. citizens.

Sensenbrenner’s bill is called the USA FREEDOM Act, a quasi-acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet Collection, and Online Monitoring Act. The broadly stated purpose of the bill is to “rein in the dragnet collection of data by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies, increase transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), provide businesses the ability to release information regarding Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests, and create an independent constitutional advocate to argue cases before the FISC.”

Ironically, Sensenbrenner also initially introduced the PATRIOT Act to the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2001.

On ending the bulk collection of U.S. citizen’s communication data, the bill aims to nullify such collection as permitted by Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act; strengthen the prohibition of reverse-targeting, which is the process of targeting a non-U.S. citizen with the clear goal of acquiring a U.S. citizen’s data; and more stringently require that the government aggressively filter and discard any information accidentally collected through PRISM and related programs.

Regarding reforms to the FISC, the bill would create an Office of the Special Advocate that would promote privacy within FISC’s closed hearings and have the authority to appeal FISC decisions; require that the FISC and the more broad foreign intelligence community more robustly report its actions to congress; and grant the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board subpoena authority to investigate issues related to privacy and national security.

The bill would also increase transparency with provisions designed to end secret laws by requiring that the Attorney General publicly disclose all FISC decisions issued after July 10, 2003 that required a significant construction or interpretation of law; allow that Internet and telecom companies may publicly report estimates on the number of FISA orders and National Security Letters (NSL) received, complied with, and the number of user accounts affected by such orders; and further require that the government produce its own annual or semiannual transparency reports indicating the the total number of people and businesses subject to orders enabling electronic surveillance.

If passed into law, the USA FREEDOM Act would “adopt a single standard for Section 215 and NSL protection to ensure the administration doesn’t use different authorities to support bulk collection” in addition to establishing a sunset provision that could end the practice of issuing NSLs, ensuring proper congressional review of the practice.

Sensenbrenner’s bill is a near-direct reaction to the U.S. government’s alleged mass surveillance programs revealed by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and published by The Guardian.

It is not clear whether the house will even consider Sensenbrenner’s bill or any other similar ones – let alone pass it on to the Senate who will need to pass it as well before the president has a chance to sign it into law. However, the bill mirrors largely negative public sentiment surrounding the NSA’s surveillance activities. Advocacy groups from across the political spectrum are calling on congress to end such practices and even held a rally on the Capitol last weekend expressing discontent with the status quo.

“Recent revelations of the NSA’s expansive surveillance programs harm user trust in the digital ecosystem, stifle innovation, and lead to a harmful balkanization of the Internet,” wrote Harvey Anderson, senior vice president of business and legal affairs at the Mozilla Foundation on the Mozilla Blog.

Bruce Schneier and numerous other security experts have expressed similar sentiments.

“We don’t know what’s been tampered with. Nothing can be trusted. Everything is suspect,” Schneier told Threatpost in an interview in late September.

This lack of trust in many of the Internet security protocols on which we have come to rely, many, Schneier among them, have argued is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the NSA surveillance revelations.

While Anderson expresses concerns that the revelations may cause people to lose faith in the security of and stop using digital communications tools altogether, he is ultimately optimistic. This bill and another sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jim Leahy of Vermont in the Senate may have the impact of undoing the damage done and rebuilding the trust that is essential to the Internet.

“Certainly, more is required to address this issue as each day we learn of new and disturbing aspects of global surveillance on citizens around the world,” Anderson wrote. “The Freedom Act is not a wholesale fix to the myriad of issues exposed by the NSA’s surveillance programs, but it is a step in the right direction. “

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