ALCU, Reddit, FreedomWorks, others send letter to Obama, Congress calling for end to bulk surveillance

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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Privacy and liberty focused advocacy groups from right to left joined together Tuesday to endorse a joint letter to both the White House and Congress calling for an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance program.

“Overbroad national security surveillance raises a host of Constitutional, human rights, and practical concerns, and we urge Congress and the Administration to address systemic reform,” the letter said. “The trust of the American people and the global public cannot be regained with legislation that achieves only modest changes to discrete programs.”

The letter from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, FreedomWorks, the Republican Liberty Caucus, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and even online social media platform Reddit commended the government for finally recognizing the need to change national security surveillance practices, but also leveled heavy criticism against the proposals put forth by the White House and House Intelligence Committee last week.

Those bills would take the storage and access of bulk private telephone metadata out of the hands of the NSA and transfer it to telecommunications service providers directly, where agencies would have to submit a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant to access records. According to the letter, those changes are inadequate — the intelligence committee bill in particular, which actually threatens to make it even easier for agencies to acquire records.

“Require prior court approval for each record request. Under current law, the government must obtain approval from the FISA court before it can force private entities to turn over records [in bulk or otherwise],” the letter said.

“President Obama, in his January 17th policy announcement, established that a judicial finding is required before the government can query the phone records that the NSA collected in bulk. Congress should leave this key safeguard in place.”

The letter also encourages the executive and legislative branches to revise the PATRIOT Act’s Section 214 as well, which authorizes the sweeping collection of Internet metadata through programs like PRISM, which gained considerable attention from the Snowden leaks for tapping into Silicon Valley giants like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple.

“Prohibit bulk collection for all types of data, not just phone records. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act applies broadly to business records, and the Department of Justice has claimed authority for bulk collection of any records that reveal relationships between individuals,” the letter explained.

“Legislation that focuses only on phone records may still allow for the bulk collection of, for example, Internet metadata, location information, financial records, library records, and numerous other records that may help ‘identify unknown relationships among individuals.’”

The most popular reform touted by the letter endorsees and numerous other officials and experts is the USA FREEDOM Act  — co-written and sponsored by Patriot Act co-author and sponsor Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

“The USA FREEDOM Act addresses each of these reforms, as well as others, by aiming to prohibit bulk collection of all data under Section 215 and 214 and the NSL statutes while preserving the requirement of prior court approval,” the letter said.

“Beyond bulk collection issues, the USA FREEDOM Act also includes strong transparency provisions for both government and private entities, and the bill closes a loophole that allows the government to search for the content of Americans’ communications without a court order.”

The USA Freedom Act and House Intelligence bills have been referred to committee, while President Obama’s proposal is expected to be introduced to Congress by the time the current surveillance authorization reaches the end of its 90-day expiration cycle.

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