President Barack Obama signed the USA FREEDOM Act into law late on Tuesday. The law will temporarily restore the nation’s phone bulk metadata collection program until it transitions to telephone providers in six months.
The president’s signature is a significant milestone in a history of controversial decisions related to surveillance. As a presidential candidate, Obama ran on a platform critical of the surveillance practices of the Bush administration. But he received backlash from privacy advocates in the wake of the Snowden revelations for declining to take executive action to rein in the National Security Agency’s intelligence practices.
Even after his own review group found that the bulk metadata storage program should be reformed, the president called on Congress to determine how the program should be reformed. This resulted in a year-and-a-half of debate over privacy rights and national security that divided political parties and Congress itself.
The New York Times noted today that in encouraging Congress to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, Obama took ownership of the surveillance programs. The White House told the Times the administration believes the president will come out on the right side of history for striking the ideal balance between national security and privacy.
As the law went into effect late on Tuesday, politicians and advocacy groups weighed in on the controversial bill, which was first introduced in a different form in October 2013.
Response has roughly fallen into three camps: Those who approve of the bill, but view it as merely a first step, those in favor of the bill, who appear to want to leave things as they are now, and those who want to rip up the Act and go back to how things were.
Good, but not good enough
Even with bipartisan praise, concerns remain that the bill does not go far enough and only addresses the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records. Privacy groups and the tech industry fall into this camp. Although they are celebrating the culmination of two years of work to reform the phone record program, they took advantage of the media spotlight on NSA reform to remind the public that the FREEDOM Act does nothing to protect the communications of non-U.S. citizens or communications swept up under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
TechNet released comment saying that it “commends the Senate for joining the House in passing the USA Freedom Act.” The group went on to say that the Act “strikes the right balance between legitimate privacy concerns and national security imperatives.”
Sounding quite similar, TechFreedom said that the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act has “restored legitimate intelligence capabilities while putting an end to needless domestic dragnet data collection.” TechFreedom provided marching orders as well, saying that “Congress should now work to address the mess of surveillance and privacy intrusions at all levels of government,” later citing email privacy as a place where more reform is needed.
Reform Government Surveillance, a technology industry group that counts Apple, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Dropbox as members said that the law “makes significant progress in reforming U.S. government surveillance programs and practices.”
The ACLU heralded the bill’s passage calling it a “milestone.” The group, however, cautioned that while the FREEDOM Act’s success shows that “comprehensive reform is possible,” the new law is “not comprehensive reform in itself.”
The EFF echoed the ACLU, saying that while the passed law was worth “celebrating,” the group “wanted more.”
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, emphasized the fight for surveillance reform was not over.
“I’m committed to plugging the backdoor search loophole that the government uses to review Americans’ communications without a warrant, to beat back efforts to build security weaknesses into our electronic devices and to require the government to get a warrant before tracking Americans’ movements electronically.”
Despite concerns the bill is just a starting point, many Democrats and Republicans in Congress felt the bill struck the right balance between protecting Americans’ privacy rights and national security — much like the White House.
On the right, Senator Mike Lee applauded the bill.
“It wasn’t easy. It took longer than it should have. But the Senate’s passage of the USA Freedom Act today is a huge win for national security and the Fourth Amendment,” he said.
Across the aisle, Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the bill allowed the country to continue to collect good intelligence.
“The vote I cast today wasn’t on the basis that this bill was perfect, but that this bill was the best opportunity to quickly get these programs back up and running. I believe we can make further changes to the program, but also think the Senate was right in preserving this program.”
McConnell made it clear he did not want to see the FREEDOM Act become law. With the sunset of the bulk metadata collection programs, he had little choice but to allow the bill to pass.
“It does not enhance the privacy protections of American citizens,” McConnell said. “And it surely undermines American security by taking one more tool from our warfighters at exactly the wrong time.”
Senator Marco Rubio, who is also a candidate for president, blamed “weak presidential leadership combined with a politically motivated misinformation campaign” for the bill’s passage, saying that the new law “weakens U.S. national security by outlawing the very programs our intelligence community and the FBI have used to protect us time and time again.”
Rubio wrapped his comment in a way that, as you will quickly see, is fun: “A major challenge for the next president will be to fix the significantly weakened intelligence system that the current one is leaving behind.” Perhaps he has someone in mind.
Still, some opposed the bill because they believed it would throw out the legal challenges to the phone metadata program. An appellate court recently ruled the program to be unconstitutional, and some believe the FREEDOM Act essentially codified surveillance practices. Demand Progress, a nonprofit supporting Internet freedom, criticized the bill.
“The Senate just voted to reinstitute certain lapsed surveillance authorities – and that means that USA Freedom actually made Americans less free,” Executive Director David Segal said. “Demand Progress opposes the USA FREEDOM Act, as it does not end mass surveillance and could be interpreted by the executive branch as authorizing activities the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has found to be unlawful.”
It seems everyone had something to say about the FREEDOM Act. It’s now the law of the land, but the tense debates about privacy and security are here to stay as Washington moves on to topics like encryption and other forms of government surveillance.