The House voted to pass the USA Freedom Act today, which would effectively shut down portions of the NSA’s controversial domestic spying program in their current form.
The bill, passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 338 to 88, would put an end to the government’s bulk collection of phone records from U.S. telecoms—a program first uncovered by USA Today in 2006 and re-exposed in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The bill instead calls for records to be retained by telecoms and forces the NSA to obtain court orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to gain access to them. It also requires the agency to use specific search terms to narrow its access to only relevant records.
The bill, however, isn’t in the clear just yet. It now goes to the Senate for a vote.
Civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others are divided in their support of the bill. Many say it’s better than nothing, but hope that the Senate will add wording to strengthen protections before passage.
EFF had supported the legislation until last week when a federal appeals court ruled that the bulk collection of phone data is illegal. In that decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that the collection of Americans’ phone metadata was never authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, as the intelligence community had insisted. EFF has now said that the ruling should embolden the Senate to roll back the bill to a previous 2013 version that provides stronger reforms.
Most importantly, EFF says lawmakers need to include language that provides a strict interpretation of key terms in the statute such as “relevant” and “investigation,” to prevent the NSA from using loose interpretations to keep collecting massive amounts of data. “This easy task will make sure that the law is not read as rejecting the Second Circuit’s reading and will help ensure that the USA Freedom Act actually accomplishes its goal of ending bulk collection,” EFF wrote in the post last week.