As expected, American lawmakers were unable to come to an agreement to renew provisions of the USA Patriot Act before a deadline of midnight on May 31. As a result of the lapse, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which is the legal tool that enables U.S intelligence agencies to collect bulk metadata on communications, is no longer authorized.
The Section 215 provisions were used by the National Security Agency (NSA) as the legal justification for surveillance efforts that first became public after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the metadata program's existence in June 2013. That July, the then head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, explained at the Black Hat USA conference that the metadata program helps identify the communications of persons suspected to be associated with terrorists. At the time, Alexander stressed that the program does not include the content of phone calls or emails.
Privacy advocates are cautiously optimistic that the lapse in Patriot Act powers will help to enable improved privacy.
"Today's vote, at least a temporary sunset, and the debate of the last few weeks are a reflection of strong support—across the political spectrum—for meaningful and comprehensive reform of the surveillance laws," Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration."
The ACLU has been a vocal opponent of many provisions in the Patriot Act and has argued that the Section 215 collected metadata has not in fact been a critical element in terrorism investigations.
Kevin Bankston, policy director of New America's Open Technology Institute, is also optimistic about the opportunities for improved privacy now that the Patriot Act provisions have not been renewed, though there is still more work to be done.
"The sunset of Patriot Act Section 215 is a huge victory for those who have been fighting for the past two years to end the NSA's bulk records program, but surveillance reformers shouldn't break out the champagne yet: this is a narrow and likely temporary victory affecting only one aspect of the NSA's spying authority," Bankston said in a statement. "Now is the time to leverage this victory and ensure that Congress' next step is the immediate passage of comprehensive reform legislation that is at least as strong as the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would ban the indiscriminate bulk collection of records not only under Section 215 but under a variety of other equally dangerous surveillance laws."
The USA Freedom Act has been in discussion by Congress for over a year and is an attempt to enable the U.S intelligence community to get the information it needs to defend against terrorists while providing improved privacy protections for Americans.
Although the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is also applauding the lapse in Patriot Act provisions, the privacy group emphasized in a blog post that there are still many other legal tools available for U.S intelligence agencies to gain intelligence.
The USA Freedom Act will likely come up for vote and debate in the U.S. Senate this week, and the ACLU has issued a public letter to senators asking for a number of reforms to further improve privacy. Among the recommendations made by the ACLU is that the USA Freedom Act provisions be up for renewal every two years, instead of every four.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.