Civil liberties groups drop support for watered down USA Freedom Act

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

May 22, 2014

Civil liberties organizations support for watered down USA Freedom Act drops like flies

The US House of Representatives is today expected to vote on legislation aimed reforming the National Security Agency’s phone metadata spying program. However, under pressure from the Whitehouse, the bill to be put before The House is so watered down that just about every civil liberties organization that once campaigned for the Act has withdrawn their support in disgust.

The weakened legislation will still require that metadata from every phone call into and out of the United States be recorded and stored, but puts the onus of this collection and storage on telecoms operators instead of the NSA. The NSA will however have full access to these records, as long as it promises to have ‘reasonable articulable suspicion’ against a terrorism target, with no oversight provided for any such claim.

What is required is that the NSA gets any search terms it uses to find evidence approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before it can demand telecoms companies hand over metadata. Until Tuesday the Act stipulated that such a term must ‘uniquely describe a person, entity, or account,’ but this has been watered down to being ‘a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device.’

As Kevin Bankston, policy director of the Open Technology Institute observed to Ars Technica,

It’s now dangerously broad and vague, [and allows for] phone records of all calls in an area code.

Various civil liberties organizations have now withdrawn their support for the act:

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

‘Since the introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that has over 140 cosponsors, Congress has been clear about its intent: ending the mass collection of Americans’ calling records. Many members of Congress, the President’s own review group on NSA activities, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board all agree that the use of Section 215 to collect Americans’ calling records must stop. Earlier today, House Leadership reached an agreement to amend the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act in ways that severely weaken the bill, potentially allowing bulk surveillance of records to continue. The Electronic Frontier Foundation cannot support a bill that doesn’t achieve the goal of ending mass spying. We urge Congress to support uncompromising NSA reform and we look forward to working on the Senate’s bipartisan version of the USA FREEDOM Act.’

Open Technology Institute

Today, the US House of Representatives’ Rules Committee reported the version of the USA FREEDOM Act surveillance reform bill that is expected to be voted on by the entire House on Thursday.  This new version of the bill is substantially different from the compromise version of the USA FREEDOM Act that was unanimously approved the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees two weeks ago.  The changes are the result of the Obama Administration pressuring House leaders to weaken various reforms in the bill.

The original USA FREEDOM Act was a great leap forward on surveillance reform, and the compromise version of two weeks ago was still a big step forward, but today’s version is merely leaning in the right direction.  Much of what has been weakened in the House version of USA FREEDOM will have to be restored in the Senate before the privacy and civil liberties community will be willing to support this bill again.’


‘Today, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Rules Committee reported a dramatically different version of the USA FREEDOM Act meant to reform NSA surveillance activities than what was unanimously approved by both the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees two weeks ago.

Yesterday, Access expressed its concern after learning that House leaders and Obama administration met over the weekend to negotiate the bill and commented, “The version we fear could now be negotiated in secret and introduced on the House floor may not move us forward on NSA reform.”

It’s greatly disappointing to witness House leaders succumb to the pressure applied by the Obama administration and others, turning its back on the compromise version of USA Freedom that so many supported just two weeks ago. The USA FREEDOM Act had previously passed through two committees before being secretly watered down behind closed doors. Access is forced to withdraw our support of the USA FREEDOM Act.’

Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT)

‘Today, the Leadership of the House of Representatives gave the green light to an amendment to the USA FREEDOM Act that would significantly weaken the bill’s ban on the government’s bulk collection of data, despite the broader consensus that bulk collection must end. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) and other civil liberties groups long supported the USA FREEDOM Act, but have withdrawn their support for the House version of the bill.

The USA FREEDOM Act was a strong reform measure when it was introduced. The bill was watered down in the House Judiciary Committee, but it was still an effective prohibition on bulk collection,” said CDT Senior Counsel Harley Geiger. “Unfortunately, the version of the USA FREEDOM Act that will reach the House Floor will be so weakened that it may continue to allow mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ private records in the future. This is not the reform the world sought.’

Update 26 May 2014: The gutted USA Freedom Act was passed on Thursday, 303 votes to 121, with 76 (half) of the bill’s 152 cosponsors voting against it . Ranking Democrat Dutch Ruppersbergers brushed off criticisms from civil rights groups, saying they were ‘trying to scare you with monsters under the bed’.

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