Critics blast US NSA phone records bill as 'fake reform'

Even some supporters say the USA Freedom Act should be only one step toward surveillance reform

A lopsided vote in the U.S. House of Representatives this week to rein in the National Security Agency's domestic telephone records dragnet won muted praise, with many supporters calling on Congress to take stronger action.

Critics, meanwhile, slammed the USA Freedom Act for extending the section of the antiterrorism Patriot Act that the NSA has used to collect the telephone records of nearly all U.S. residents. The bill, passed by a 338-88 vote late Wednesday, would end the NSA's bulk collection of domestic telephone records, while allowing the agency to continue to collect phone and other business records in a more targeted manner.

The bill's failure to kill the business and telephone records section of the Patriot Act, which would expire on June 1 without congressional action, is "fake reform," according to digital rights groups Fight for the Future and Demand Progress and progressive carrier CREDO Mobile. The bill would expand NSA surveillance powers to VoIP and video chats and would take the "wind out of the sails of real reform by appearing to have addressed mass surveillance," the groups said on a new website, USAFreedom.fail.

The USA Freedom Act is "the opposite of reform," Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, said by email.

There's no reason for the NSA to be surveilling "everyone and their mom in order to go after their targets," she added. "That's just rogue and illegal behavior and part of selling a culture of fear. We're demanding to see them build a case to surveil my mom and millions of Internet users around the world before they get one more peek at our private lives."

Other digital rights and tech groups praised the House for advancing the bill, but several called on lawmakers to broaden their focus on surveillance reform. The USA Freedom Act addresses only domestic records collection by the NSA and the FBI; it takes no action to limit the NSA's controversial overseas surveillance of the content of email, texts, telephone calls and other electronic communications.

The House bill also faces a tough fight in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has introduced legislation to extend the business and telephone records section of the Patriot Act with no new limits on the NSA.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, promised to fight any renewal of the Patriot Act that doesn't include reforms. "Supporters of dragnet surveillance are fighting to preserve the status quo, but the American public is rightfully demanding a change," he said in a statement. "It is time for mass surveillance to end, and I will filibuster any attempt to extend this illegal surveillance, which violates core American rights without making our country any safer."

The House passage of the USA Freedom Act is an "important first step" toward reforming surveillance, even though other reforms are needed, Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, said by email. The vote sends an "unequivocal message" to the Senate that a simple renewal of the Patriot Act is off the table, he added.

Congress needs to pass additional reforms, including so-called backdoor searches of U.S. communications inadvertently collected by the NSA when it targets the foreign communications of people suspected to be connected to terrorist groups, Wyden said.

Sponsors of the USA Freedom Act defended it, calling it the first major step toward surveillance reform since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about the agency's programs starting in mid-2013.

By ending the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, the bill ends an "assault on Americans' civil liberties," Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and sponsor of the bill, said in a video. "This bill reforms our intelligence-gathering programs so that they operate in a manner that reflects core American values."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentsecurityprivacylegislationtelecommunicationNew America FoundationU.S. House of RepresentativesRon WydenBob GoodlatteDemand ProgressFight for the FutureTiffiniy ChengKevin BankstonCredo MobileMitch McDonnell

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