USA Freedom Act Passes to Reform Patriot Act

May 31st 2015

Thor Benson

The USA Freedom Act is now law, passed to reform the controversial Patriot Act.

So what does that mean for you?

"Technology users everywhere should celebrate, knowing that the NSA will be a little more hampered in its surveillance overreach," Cindy Cohn and Mark Jaycox at the Electronic Freedom Foundation wrote. "We’re celebrating because, however small, this bill marks a day that some said could never happen—a day when the NSA saw its surveillance power reduced by Congress. And we’re hoping that this could be a turning point in the fight to rein in the NSA."

How we got here.

On June 1, three key provisions of the Patriot Act expired. Section 215 of the Patriot Act is the most famous of the three. The government's use of 215 to conduct surveillance on millions of Americans was revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013. The passage of the USA Freedom Act revived two of those provisions on Tuesday, and it changed the way Section 215 can be used.

The government is no longer collecting massive amounts of your phone data.

The USA Freedom Act changes the way 215 works by changing the way phone surveillance is handled. Previously, the government collected phone data in bulk. That data -- called metadata -- included information about who you called, how long you talked to them for and where you were when you called . (It did not include the contents of the calls.) Now, the phone companies will keep the data and the NSA will have to ask for specific data from certain individuals after getting approval from the special FISA court, which oversees these activities. The FISA court is only supposed to approve requests where there is a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that the data requested is related to terrorism. Additionally, the Freedom Act allows a more general surveillance of individuals who are deemed worthy of a "second hop" or second step in surveillance.

Some privacy advocates say these changes don't go far enough. They argue that the vagueness of the new law's language could still be interpreted to allow mass collection in certain situations. As Al-Jazeera reported, the Freedom Act maintains the Patriot Act's very loose definition of "person" to include entities such as corporations or non-profit organizations. One privacy advocate told Al-Jazeera that this liberal definition might allow the NSA wide leverage to acquire data from whole organizations based on one individual who is suspected of being linked to terrorism.

There should be more transparency now.

One big problem people had with the old system was that the FISA court, which was supposed to provide a check against government overreach, had basically become a rubber stamp for anything that the NSA wanted. To help combat that problem, the new law creates more transparency by requiring the FISA court to declassify important decisions as well as more details about the amount and type of requests made by the NSA.

Was the old law successful?

It does not seem like it. In fact, the White House's own expert review board found the program was not effective for finding terrorists and had not stopped terrorist threats. The way the government was using Section 215 for mass data collection was also ruled to be illegal by a federal court.

Most of the controversial tactics revealed by Edward Snowden will continue.

At least two controversial practices disliked by privacy advocates will continue.

The first is PRISM, which was an important aspect of the Edward Snowden leaks. PRISM is basically a partnership between the government and Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple and others that means those companies will give away user information when the NSA asks for it.

The other controversial practice is the collection of data located outside the United States. To do this, the NSA uses both Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333. The executive order also appears to have less oversight than 702. While the difference between these two authorities remains murky, the bottom line is that the NSA uses one (or both) of these provisions to collect calls, text messages, and emails. It also includes international calls made by Americans.

If all of that was a bit difficult to consume, then let John Oliver explain it to you: