What Will Happen to the NSA's Phone Data Collection?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 21, 2015 9:59 AM

An important section of the Patriot Act is set to expire June 1st. Without a renewal from Congress, that could mean the end to the NSA's collection of bulk phone metadata. The surveillance program was recently ruled illegal by the Second Circuit and has lost support in the House. Yet, Senate Republicans remain strongly supportive.

As the Senate considers whether to renew the Patriot act, working through an old fashioned filibuster, the question remains: what will happen to the NSA's phone data collection program?

Recent Challenges to the NSA Program

First, the Second Circuit recently ruled that the systematic metadata collection wasn't authorized by the Patriot Act. That ruling found that the NSA's massive collection of data surpassed what was authorized by the law -- which allows collection of data "relevant to an authorized investigation." Instead, the court said, the NSA wants to sweep up as much information as possible, in the hopes that it might one day be relevant to a future particular investigation. The NSA hasn't shut down the program in light of the ruling, however.

Then, There's the Freedom Act

Following the Second Circuit's ruling, support for the program reached new lows in Congress, where Republican support for the NSA was once considered a given. In a stunningly lopsided vote, the House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 338 to 88, the USA Freedom Act, which would end the government's surveillance database.

That doesn't completely satisfy some critics. The data will still be collected, but it will remain with telephone companies, not the NSA. The Act also doesn't include minimization procedures and other privacy protections that some had sought. However, it still makes a fairly significant reform to NSA practices.

Drama in the Senate

The Senate took a much different approach. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that the Patriot Act, along with the bulk phone metadata collection program, needed to be maintained. He maintains that any loss of the surveillance program would risk exposing the United States to renewed terrorist attacks -- a claim a government review of the program seems to contradict.

When the McConnell attempted to file cloture on a Senate bill to extend the surveillance program into 2020 yesterday, Senator Rand Paul, long an opponent of the program, got to do his best "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." After ten hours at the podium, Paul took his seat. It's unclear yet whether Paul's act, which was joined by ten other Senators, will lead to any changes to the Patriot Act's renewal.

One thing is clear, however. The continued existence of the Patriot Act and NSA bulk telephone data collection is more at risk now than ever before.

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