President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act into law on June 2, after the U.S Senate passed the new surveillance bill in a 67-32 vote. With the new act, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act—which enabled the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect bulk metadata on Americans’ communications—is no more. Instead, new provisions are in place to help protect privacy.
Revelations about the NSA’s collecting bulk metadata first came to light after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the metadata program’s existence in June 2013. Snowden has been on the run ever since and is currently in Russia. Snowden participated in an Amnesty International Webcast on June 2, in which he was asked about his views on the USA Freedom Act and his role in bringing about surveillance reform.
“I have lost a lot of things,” Snowden said. “I can no longer see my family. I can no longer live in my home. But on the other hand, the things I have received personally and we have all benefited from publicly, make it all worth it.”
Snowden emphasized that progress has been made since his first disclosures in 2013 as there is now more awareness about the surveillance activities of the U.S. government and its allies that could be construed as a violation of individual rights.
“We get a different quality of government when they are accountable to the public,” Snowden said. “It’s not that every intelligence service is evil, or that surveillance programs are all terrible and never do any good at all, we want to be able to have some level of intelligence gathering and we want to be able to investigate criminals.”
Snowden added that getting intelligence on criminals is very different than mass surveillance on society as a whole, without regards to guilt or innocence. Specifically with regard to Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, Snowden noted that it has always been a violation of personal privacy rights.
“It is important and actually historic that this [Section 215] has been refuted—not just by the courts, but by Congress—and the president himself is saying that this mass surveillance program has to end,” Snowden said.
In a statement released June 2, President Obama said: “For the past 18 months, I have called for reforms that better safeguard the privacy and civil liberties of the American people while ensuring our national security officials retain tools important to keeping Americans safe. … I am gratified that Congress has finally moved forward with this sensible reform legislation.”
Snowden said that the end of Section 215 is an important first step in reform. For Snowden, the biggest gain isn’t about the law; it’s about the realization that facts and public opinion are now more persuasive than fear. He noted that fear of terrorism is what drove the acceptance of Section 215, and facts about its ineffectiveness have helped end it.
“For the first time in recent history, despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision, and that is a radical change that we should seize on, value and push further,” Snowden said.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.