The House of Representatives passed a significantly weaker version of a bill to rein in the NSA’s blatantly unconstitutional data mining programs than was originally considered. The USA Freedom Act does contain some useful safeguards, but nothing remotely like what the 4th Amendment requires:
The bipartisan bill that passed 303-121 was altered just weeks after House Judiciary and Intelligence Committee members unanimously agreed on a stricter version that allowed for greater transparency from Internet companies such as Google and Facebook, and outlined specific criteria for data collection. But after a meeting with the White House, members in the House’s Rules Committee amended the bill so that — while it ends dragnet phone collection data — it also lets the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies collect and store large amounts of data with some loosened restrictions.
“The bill was watered down significantly,” Robyn Greene, policy counsel for the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute in Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress. And there’s no clear definition that tells the public what information will be collected under the law, she said.
The House changed the government’s criteria for collecting information on a unique person or account to broader terms. “It’s not fair to say that this bill doesn’t do anything; it does. But the [bill] has allowed for more collection than what was imagined before [the revisions],” Ken Gude, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress. “It opened up the prospect to collect data from more than just specifically identified individuals.”
As is, the bill allows the NSA and other intel agencies to seize all emails from an email service company such as GMail, every transaction from a particular bank, all calls made in a certain area code, Greene said. Under the bill, the NSA could ask for records from an entire state. And instead of letting the government home in on communications to and from a suspect, the NSA can collect, keep and use information that’s simply about a target. That could mean a conversation mentioning the target’s name by people who aren’t suspected of criminal activity could be kept for surveillance.
“Yes, it does end the bulk collection of everyone but it does allow for the bulk collection of a subset of everyone,” Gude said. “Even if it was a large group of individuals [under surveillance], they were specific. [As the bill is written,] you can make the limiting factor so broad that you can target a large number of people.”
The House bill also weakened transparency requirements for companies under the NSA’s PRISM data-collection program implicated in the Edward Snowden leaks last year. In the original revision, companies in that program such as Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo could have released the number of surveillance requests they receive, by which agencies and the number of accounts that were affected (rounded to the nearest thousand). Now, that information breakdown is approved for all other programs except those under title 7– the PRISM program, Greene said. “That’s the program we know the least about and we need to know how the information is being used.”
I don’t know why this is so difficult. The 4th Amendment is perfectly clear: If you want to do a search and seize information pursuant to a criminal investigation, you have to show probable cause and get a warrant. It’s worked pretty well for a couple centuries.