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U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy’s latest privacy bill culls NSA surveillance

Above: A photo composition of National Security Agency headquarters in Maryland, U.S.

Image Credit: Wikipedia & Harrison Weber / VentureBeat

Today, Senator Patrick Leahy is putting a new bill on the table for consideration, one that bans bulk collection of U.S. citizen phone records and Internet data and that limits the amount of information the National Security Agency can pull in for a search.

Last month the House passed a similar version of the bill last month, but critics complained that it was insufficient. The House bill curbs NSA searches by limiting funding and preventing requests for “backdoors” from private companies or organizations.

Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has updated his version of the Freedom Acton a couple counts. First, it replaces bulk data collection with searches that have a limited scope. The NSA is a allowed to collect detailed records on persons within two degrees of a suspected terrorist, if the agency can prove reasonable suspicion that the subject has connections to a terrorist organization.

Second, the bill also requires some level of transparency and oversight. As an example, the government must provide the number of people it has collected information on and how many were Americans. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court will also be required to consult with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight board to create a special panel of civil liberties advocates.

Leahy has been working on Internet privacy reform bills since 2005, but he just can’t seem to get them passed into law. His interest in privacy also spans beyond FISA and NSA surveillance. In January, he introduced a bill centered on setting cyber security standards for the Web. Items included establishing punishment for identity theft, setting security standards for businesses who handle customers’ personal data, and creating a framework for notifying customers when data breaches occur.

But since the PRISM revelations, the privacy community and many U.S. citizens have been asking for regulation to curtail the NSA and its surveillance practices. As it stands now there are three major laws that govern privacy: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and the Patriot Act.

FISA allows the NSA to wiretap without a warrant as long as the surveillance pertains to a grave attack, sabotage, or espionage against the United States, as long as its not of a U.S. citizen. The ECPA, written in 1986, says law enforcement can access any “electronic correspondence” that’s been stored for 180 days without a warrant. As you can tell this legislation was written long before storing information on the internet was widely adopted. In 2001, however, former President George W. Bush passed The Patriot Act, widening criteria for unwarranted searches and wiretaps to combat terrorism.

“The Senate bill is a vast improvement over the final House bill, which was unfortunately watered down. The Senate USA Freedom Act narrows key loopholes on bulk data collection and offers greater transparency, which is essential for citizens in a free democracy,” says Ed Black, Computer and Communications Industry Association President and CEO, in a statement.

The new bill certainly is more robust than the House bill, but who knows if it will stay the same. The bill still has to go to a vote, and Leahy’s colleagues may want to make revisions before then.

It’s also August, traditionally a inert time for Congress. With many senators gearing up for the campaign trail and elections in November, we may not see activity on this bill for a while. The general pace of passed legislation from Congress has dwindled in recent years. In the first term of Congress only 55 laws were passed, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s less than the 112th Congress (2011-2012) passed in its first term. The 112th Congress is considered to be one of the least productive in history.


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