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Senate introduces USA FREEDOM Act to curb NSA spying excesses

Good news if you're an American, less so for everyone else

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Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has introduced the USA FREEDOM Act to the US Senate and claims, that, if passed, the legislation will severely curtail the amount of mass surveillance that can be carried out by the NSA and others – provided you're a citizen of the land of the free.

"This is a debate about Americans' fundamental relationship with their government – about whether our government should have the power to create massive databases of information about its citizens," Leahy said.

"I believe strongly that we must impose stronger limits on government surveillance powers – and I am confident that most Vermonters, and most Americans, agree with me. We need to get this right, and we need to get it done without further delay."

The USA FREEDOM Act, or to give it its actual name the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act, will end the bulk collection of metadata allowed under Section 215 of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT), which was rushed through in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

In order to carry out surveillance of American citizens, the new legislation will insist that there is a reasonable suspicion that a target is associated with international terrorism, and that such surveillance can't be assigned to a mass group like – for example – all of Verizon's customers. Intelligence agencies will also have to keep accurate logs about the people whom they are monitoring.

The bill would also reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which oversees the government's surveillance program, by adding a special advocate position who could act in court to monitor privacy rulings. In addition some of the "significant" FISC rulings will have to be declassified.

The bill would also require greater transparency over the use of National Security Letters, which can be used to collect data from companies about their customers but forces the firms to keep quiet about it. The new law would also give firms more flexibility in revealing the use of National Security Letters, and would set up a channel for the exchange of security information between government intelligence agencies and private companies.

"I would like to thank Senators Leahy, Lee, Heller and Franken for their efforts to bring meaningful reform to government surveillance," said Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith in a statement.

"By establishing a panel of advocates to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and requiring it to issue statements about its decisions, the Senate bill strengthens our privacy rights and civil liberties. We're also pleased that the bill bans the bulk collection of data and allows companies to be more transparent about requests we receive from the government."

What the new legislation doesn't do is provide any meaningful protection for non-Americans from surveillance or for Americans overseas. Executive Order 12333, enacted by Ronald Reagan, still leaves everyone outside the US open to monitoring.

Meanwhile, privacy groups are concerned that the Senate's bill will get watered down in committee stages and debate. The USA FREEDOM Act passed by the House of Representatives suffered a similar fate and lacked key privacy protections.

"We believe that this legislation will help ensure that the NSA reform conversation in Congress continues, rather than shutting it down," said the EFF. "That's why we urge Congress to support the Senate version of USA FREEDOM and pass it without any changes that will weaken its provisions." ®

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