Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives and Senate have introduced legislation that would significantly reform the US government’s foreign intelligence surveillance authorities.
The Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act (SAPRA) was introduced last week by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) and Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Warren Davidson (R-OH). The bill, officially HR 5675, takes aim at government surveillance, specifically Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was enacted in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and allows the government to obtain secret court orders requiring telecommunications companies, financial institutions and other third parties to hand over information related to terrorism or foreign intelligence investigations.
The proposed reforms would end the mass phone surveillance program and ban warrantless collection of location data. The measure would also reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by increasing transparency in what is a notoriously secretive court process. Other highlights include expanding the role of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) amici access, improved reporting requirements and requirements for notifying defendants whenever the government utilizes evidence obtained under Section 215.
In a statement announcing the bill, Sen. Wyden said it “preserves authorities the government uses against criminals and terrorists, while putting Americans’ constitutional rights front and center.”
Online privacy advocates welcomed the new measure, with some reservations. The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said that “SAPRA is a strong bill that includes many necessary reforms,” while concluding that, “unfortunately, SAPRA does not include any reforms to the disclosure provision of FISA.” EFF added that “we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that the final FISA reform bill tackles this issue of disclosure.”
The global scale and scope of NSA surveillance was revealed beginning in 2013 by former NSA and CIA computer expert Edward Snowden. Snowden leaked classified documents revealing the US and UK governments were engaged in illegal mass surveillance on a global scale, targeting US citizens, foreign leaders both friend and foe, multinational corporations and even the future Pope and online games including World of Warcraft and Second Life.
In response to Snowden’s revelations, Congress in 2015 passed the USA Freedom Act in an attempt to end bulk data collection under Section 215. However, online privacy advocates say the law has not fully succeeded in curtailing mass surveillance and increasing transparency. Concerns over government surveillance continue to make headlines. Last year, a report from Justice Department’s inspector-general detailed significant problems with the government’s surveillance of former top Donald Trump campaign official Carter Page. The report found that two of the four FISA warrants authorizing surveillance of Page were invalid.