The U.S Senate met on June 2nd and passed the reformed USA Freedom Act, which replaced the Patriot Act, the law that regulates America’s snooping. There was no much debate over the new amendments and the Lawmakers ensured that it was immediately signed into law by President Barack Obama. Several contentious provisions of the Patriot Act authorizing extensive government surveillance programs were earlier expired after the U.S. Senate failed to vote for an extension.
The USA Patriot Act or the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, was passed in October 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The act instantaneously expanded the ability of the United States government to conduct surveillance and investigate citizens without their knowledge. Section 215 of the Patriot Act was used by National Security Agency (NSA) as the basis for collecting phone records of Americans who were not necessarily under official investigation. It was even used to track financial data and to obtain companies’ internet business records. In 2007 a three-judge panel ruled the law illegal. The panel, however, did not say the law was unconstitutional; instead that the federal government’s mass-data collections had gone beyond what the original creators of the act envisioned when they signed it into law. In May 2015 a Federal appeals court in New York also ruled that systematically collecting Americans’ phone records in bulk is illegal.
The New Act will stop the indiscriminate collection of phone-call records by the NSA. Under the revamped rule, call metadata records would be kept by phone companies, not the government. Federal officials will be required to request records using “a specific selection term” on the basis of “reasonable articulable suspicion” that the call information is linked to international terrorism. The “lone wolf” provision of the old Act which allowed targeted surveillance of people suspected to be terrorists, but not part of any group were not included in the USA Freedom Act. The “roving wiretap” provision which allowed the monitoring of a specific person, irrespective of the devices used was also not extended.
Even though new surveillance reforms are introduced, the NSA still has various other spying programs with other legal foundations. It includes the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which forms the legal basis for a controversial NSA program called PRISM that collects private data from major internet companies like Google and Facebook.
It was NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden who revealed the extent of the mass surveillance program nearly two years ago. The disclosures had serious international ramifications. There was a diplomatic standoff between Washington and Berlin after it became evident that Chancellor Angela Merkels’ phone had been tapped by the NSA. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff even wanted a public apology from the U.S after it spied on her private communications.
“As you read this online, the United States government makes a note,” Snowden wrote on the New York Times. In his article he also referred to the new spying programs in Australia, Canada and France, in addition to comments from British Prime Minister David Cameron as disturbing anti-privacy trends. He finished the article by saying that, public opinion is shifting towards favoring a more “open society” that he believes will push back against government infringement on privacy.
The surveillance provisions’ reforms are regarded as victory by those who were against such programs. Supporters of the Patriot Act, however, were concerned about the US national security.
- Farookh K A, 3rd year LLB student, GLC Thrissur. (Inputs from RT.com, lawstreetmedia.com and vox.com)