Support for the legal right of the National Security Agency (NSA) to gather phone data on millions of citizens received a boost on Tuesday after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced a bill that would grant intelligence agencies authority under the USA PATRIOT Act to continue surveillance and mass gathering of phone and other data for “national security purposes” through 2020.
The move skirted a traditional committee vetting process and presented the bill directly to the floor. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who has opposed the surveillance, issued a quick response. He called his Republican colleagues “tone deaf” to the American public opposed to the sweeping up of their personal information, a practice first exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on the House Judiciary Committee, working with Leahy, have been attempting to amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act to impose greater control over what information federal intelligence agents can collect and retain.
“To the extent that the law would remove the ability of private plaintiffs (including class action plaintiffs) to bring relevant claims, there will be a lot of unhappiness,” Jeffrey Neuburger, partner with Proskauer and co-head of the firm’s Technology, Media & Communications Group, told SCMagazine.com in a statement.
Privacy advocates have begun to weigh in as well. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued a statement strongly opposing the bill, urging citizens to contact Sen. McConnell and their senators to advocate for a stop of mass surveillance under the Patriot Act. “The unconstitutional bulk collection of phone records must end now,” the EFF stated.
The ACLU too expressed vehement opposition to Sen. McConnell’s bill. “The Patriot Act has been at the root of many of the most serious abuses of government spying powers,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, wrote in a statement. “We need to have a serious debate about the effectiveness of the Patriot Act and its implications for civil liberties. Until that happens, Congress should let Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire with the whimper it deserves.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also spoke out against the measure. Wyden – the only member of the Intelligence Committee to vote against the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) last month, stated: “We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence.”