Tech Companies Throw Their Support Behind Strengthened NSA Reform Bill

As expected, Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced the USA FREEDOM Act to the upper chamber of Congress on Tuesday. The bill comes on the heels of a similar, weaker measure passed in the House that was widely condemned as denatured and passed by brute force.

“If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago,” Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

The new bill is widely heralded as a compromise, as Leahy sought input from the Obama administration in drafting the bill. Privacy groups, such as the ACLU and The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), as well as tech companies that pulled support from the House version when it became too watered down, praised the bill.

A coalition representing AOL (which owns us), Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo expressed support for the bill. That group, called Reform Government Surveillance (RGS), previously pulled support for the House version of the USA FREEDOM Act after its gutting.

“[The Senate] bill will help restore trust in the Internet by ending the government’s bulk Internet metadata collection and increasing transparency around U.S. surveillance practices,” the group said in a statement.

Leahy’s bill would curtail bulk collection of data under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, create a special advocate inside of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and add a host of language changes to current law that would greatly limit the potential purview of many surveillance programs.

Importantly, if enacted in its current form, the bill would end the now-infamous call metadata program that was first unveiled last June. That program was the first of the National Security Agency (NSA) activities that came to light due to the documents that former-NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the media.

The special advocate would not have the power to appeal rulings, and the bill doesn’t end the so-called “backdoor” searches that are used by a number of American intelligence agencies to search the communications of United States citizens.

Also in the bill are rules that dictate the destruction of collected information that isn’t relevant, and the mandating of declassification of some FISC opinions. The latter could better draw the blinds on the inner workings of that court, which operates in secret. Currently, there is no advocate for the potentially surveilled in the court, making its operation a decidedly one-sided affair.

The full text of the Act can be read here.

Later in the bill, a reporting structure is set up to command broader disclosure of surveillance activities to Congress, including the number of applications and orders — both applied for and denied — allowed for under various authorizing sections of the law. It would provide Congress with a better window into the inner workings of the intelligence community.

Some in Congress have complained that having to oversee agencies that they often don’t fully understand, such as the NSA, is an opaque, muddled process.

In a section detailing “discretionary reporting by [the] Director of National Intelligence,” the law calls for disclosure to the public the number of individuals whose communications were collected under various provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including Section 702.

Proponents lined up this morning to praise the bill. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who introduced the USA FREEDOM Act with Leahy in October, said Leahy’s version recoups privacy provisions that were lost in the House’s revisions.

“Today, Chairman Leahy introduced a compromise that strengthens the privacy protections of the House bill while retaining support from the Administration and intel community,” Sensenbrenner said. “By reclaiming important provisions stripped from our original bill, tech giants and privacy advocates have reestablished their support.”

The ACLU noted the historical significance of the bill. If the Senate passes this bill, it will be the first time the body voted to rein in government intelligence programs since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed in 1978.

“To quote Joe Biden during the signing of the healthcare bill, ‘This is a big f—ing deal,'” the ACLU said on its blog.

The ACLU praised the bill’s termination of the bulk collection of telephony metadata under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act and dragnet surveillance. However the privacy rights group did criticize the bill for its narrow focus on Section 215 and its lack of reforms to abuses occurring under Section 702.

The Information Technology Industry Council said it was “vital” for Congress to pass reforms that would repair the public’s trust in the government.

“Today’s introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Sen. Leahy is an important part of moving this process forward,”  said Andy Halataei, senior vice president of government affairs. “This bill improves bipartisan legislation already passed by the House of Representatives by effectively putting an end to bulk collection and enabling companies to be more transparent about the orders they receive.”

Microsoft, in addition to its participation in the RGS, released a comment by its chief lawyer, Brad Smith, praising the bill’s ending of “bulk collection of data” and provisions that would allow “companies to be more transparent about requests [they] receive from the government.”