Facebook, Google Welcome Updated Leahy Measure to Rein in NSA Activities

By Alexei Alexis  

July 29 — Updated legislation from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to rein in the National Security Agency's surveillance activities was welcomed by a broad range of groups, including a coalition of leading Internet companies, such as Facebook Inc. and Google Inc.

The legislation, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2014 (number not yet available), would ban the bulk collection of business records and allow Internet companies and telecommunications providers to publicly report statistics about surveillance orders imposed on them in the name of national security, among other provisions. The House passed a softer version (H.R. 3361) in May.

The Leahy 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,” said the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes Facebook, Google, Microsoft Corp. and AOL.

Other Supporters

Other groups backing the effort include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Open Technology Institute, the Software and Information Industry Association, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Information Technology Industry Council.

 “This new, stronger version of the USA FREEDOM Act would go a long way toward stemming the costs of the NSA's spying programs and restoring trust in the American Internet industry, by prohibiting bulk records collection and providing substantially more transparency around the NSA's surveillance programs,” OTI Policy Director Kevin Bankston said in a statement.

According to the statement, the revised bill strengthens and clarifies the ban on bulk data collection, including by tightening definitions to ensure that the government may not collect records for everyone in a particular geographic area or using a particular communication service, and by adding new post-collection minimization procedures; beefs up language allowing companies to report on the NSA's surveillance activities; and calls for tougher changes to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's processes.

‘Historic Opportunity.'

The updated legislation is the result of negotiations with a number of stakeholders, including the Obama administration, according to Leahy.

“This is an historic opportunity, and I am grateful that the bill has the support of the administration, a wide range of privacy and civil liberties groups, and the technology industry,” he said in a statement.

The chairman called for the bill to go directly to the Senate floor, bypassing a committee vote, saying that he was concerned that time on the legislative calendar is running out.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking member, said he will be studying Leahy's bill and asking for feedback from privacy and intelligence experts.

“Rapid changes in technology in a very hostile world are making our enemies more lethal, the world more interconnected, and privacy more subject to possible intrusion,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “This makes it all the more important to strike the right balance between the privacy rights of Americans under the Constitution and the core responsibility of the federal government to provide national security for the homeland.”

A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and also chairs the Intelligence Committee, declined to comment.

In revising the legislation, Leahy said that he consulted closely with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA, the FBI and the Department of Justice. He added that “every single word of this bill was vetted with those agencies.”

New Data Collection Limits Proposed

The legislation responds to controversial NSA surveillance activities exposed last year by former government contractor Edward Snowden. A key concern has been the government's bulk collection of U.S. phone customer records, using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Current law permits the government to compel the production of business records that are “relevant” to a terrorism investigation, after an order has been obtained from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

Under the bill, bulk data gathering under Section 215 would be banned by requiring the government to narrowly limit the scope of its collection. The measure would also make clear that the government may not collect all information relating to a particular service provider or to a broad geographic region, such as a city, zip code or area code.

Private companies would be granted options for reporting public information about the number of national security orders they have received, and the FISC, in consultation with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, would appoint a panel of special advocates to advance legal positions in support of individual privacy and civil liberties.

Leahy introduced the bill with a bipartisan group of cosponsors, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chief sponsor of the House version of the legislation, commended Leahy for introducing a “compromise that strengthens the privacy protections of the House bill while retaining support from the Administration and intel community.”

“By reclaiming important provisions stripped from our original bill, tech giants and privacy advocates have reestablished their support,” he said in a statement. “I hope the Senate works expeditiously to pass the USA FREEDOM Act and eagerly await the President signing it into law.”

Bill ‘Not Perfect.'

Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, said the legislation would significantly constrain “the out-of-control surveillance authorities exposed by Edward Snowden.”

“While this bill is not perfect, it is the beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001,” she said in a statement. “The Senate bill is an improvement over the version passed by the House, but problems remain. It is important that the public understand that there is much more work to be done to narrow the government's overbroad surveillance authorities to bring them in line with our Constitution and values.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Full text of Leahy's reintroduced bill can be found at: http://www.leahy.senate.gov/download/hen14602.