Compliance Management, Privacy

House committee passes bill to stop unbridled gov’t access to phone data

In a unanimous vote, a House committee approved legislation that aims to reform controversial government practices, like NSA's bulk collection of phone data.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed the USA Freedom Act (H.R. 3361) with a 32-0 vote. The bipartisan legislation was authored by Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who, alongside Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced the bill last October in an effort to curb unbridled government access to the data.

A markup of the proposed legislation was posted online Wednesday by the House committee.

The major provisions of the bill, which have now moved forward in the House, prohibit mass collection of Americans' data under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Section 402 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letter orders.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the collection of call records, including the date and time of calls and outgoing and incoming phone numbers. While the government says it does not record the content of calls under law, other information, like the duration of the call and the origin of the metadata record, are within the NSA's reach.

The USA Freedom Act would also ensure better judicial oversight of intelligence-gathering programs that request data, such as emails and phone calls. In addition, the bill would require the government to disclose details about its requests for call records, and allow tech companies to publicly report FISA orders for customer information on a semi-annual basis.

In a Wednesday release, the House Judiciary Committee announced that bill would also reform government procedures for obtaining suspects' call records.

“The government would be required to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) of specific selection terms on a case-by-case basis,” the release said.

On Thursday, Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told in an interview that the House committee's approval marks “good first steps” in reforming call records programs, which were revealed by Edward Snowden leaks.

He later added that Congress appears to be “mirroring how [the public] found out about the leaks," in tackling the contested allowances of FISA bit by bit.

“This is the first serious reform bill to pass out of the House committee to curtail at least one aspect of NSA's activities,” Jaycox said.

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