Proposed USA Freedom Act Updated for Improved Privacy

Efforts to reform government surveillance laws continue to push through Congress. The USA Freedom Act of 2014 is the latest step in that direction.

USA Freedom Act of 2014

In the wake of disclosures first made over a year ago by U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, Congress has embarked on the long, arduous journey toward surveillance reform. The reforms are encompassed in the USA Freedom Act, an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Discipline Over Monitoring.

The latest step in the reform process debuted July 29 with legislation introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Leahy's legislation builds on the USA Freedom legislation passed in the House of Representative in May. President Obama had pledged in a January policy speech to enact surveillance reforms.

"If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago," Leahy said in a floor statement.

The USA Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. The USA Freedom Act amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which includes the legal authorization for the United States to collect bulk metadata surveillance. Snowden's first disclosures about the NSA revolved around the Prism bulk metadata collection program. The NSA has stated that Prism is authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Senator Leahy's proposal will see bulk collection of data banned and will require that the government specify a narrow search scope for data collection.

In a backgrounder on the reforms, Senate Leahy claims that the USA Freedom Act of 2014 provides the Intelligence Community with the authority it needs to collect phone records in a more targeted manner.

Leahy also wants improved transparency for government surveillance, including a report on the number of individuals whose data has been collected. Going a step further, Leahy's bill also provides options for private enterprises to be able to better publicly disclose information on requests for information received from the government.

"This is a debate about Americans' fundamental relationship with their government—about whether our government should have the power to create massive databases of information about its citizens," Leahy said in a statement.

At this point, the amended USA Freedom Act is getting a mostly positive reaction. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) applauded the reforms in a blog post. Though the EFF notes the Leahy USA Freedom Act is a step in the right direction, there are still some concerns.

"The legislation may not completely end suspicion-less surveillance," the EFF stated."The USA FREEDOM Act of 2014 is a real first step because it creates meaningful change to NSA surveillance right now, while paving the way for the public to get more information about what the NSA is doing."

The new legislation is also finding backers in the software vendor community.

"We're also pleased that the bill bans the bulk collection of data and allows companies to be more transparent about requests we receive from the government," Microsoft General Counsel and Executive Vice President Brad Smith, said in a statement.

Even without the new USA Freedom Act reforms though, U.S. companies have been taking steps to improve transparency on their own. A May report from the EFF found that in the post-Snowden era many companies have a much higher degree of transparency than ever before about reporting on government requests.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.