The US Senate has voted in the USA Freedom Act that is set to end the bulk collection of citizens' phone records, but it is not the legislation that privacy advocates were looking for.
The Freedom Act was passed by a 67-32 vote, and will revoke Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a set of post-9/11 security rules and mechanisms. The Act has already been forwarded to president Obama who has promised to sign it immediately.
Any phone record collection will now require a specific warrant, and cases will be viewed on an individual basis.
Glad the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act. It protects civil liberties and our national security. I'll sign it as soon as I get it.— President Obama (@POTUS) June 2, 2015
However, while the legislation promises to limit mass surveillance it covers only US citizens, which has been criticised by those who oppose any kind of snooping.
One key message of the USA Freedom Act: "Dear world: only the privacy rights of Americans matter." Good message to send?— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) June 3, 2015
The Freedom of the Press Foundation called the act "historic" but deeply flawed. "Two years ago, debating these modest changes would've been unthinkable, and it is absolutely a vindication for Edward Snowden," it said.
"Unfortunately, the bill is also woefully inadequate and largely symbolic. The USA Freedom Act supposedly bans bulk collection of phone records or any other private records, and we certainly hope it actually does, but its provisions are vague and confusing."
This feeling is echoed at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which said that the act is a "milestone", but touches on only one part of the surveillance web.
"This is the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978, and its passage is an indication that Americans are no longer willing to give the intelligence agencies a blank cheque," said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director.
"Still, no one should mistake this bill for comprehensive reform. The bill leaves many of the government's most intrusive and overbroad surveillance powers untouched, and it makes only very modest adjustments to disclosure and transparency requirements."
Passage of the USA Freedom Act is a milestone, but not the comprehensive surveillance reform that's needed https://t.co/z1fPI1WVBG— ACLU National (@ACLU) June 2, 2015
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) had an equally mixed response. "It's not the bill the EFF would have written, and ... we withdrew our support from the bill in an effort to spur Congress to strengthen some of its privacy protections and out of concern about language added to the bill at the behest of the intelligence community," it said.
"Even so, 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."
Earlier this week the privacy groups gave a muted reaction to the US government vote on ending the controversial bulk surveillance part of the Patriot Act, warning that there is still plenty of opportunity for snooping and mass data harvesting.
Senator Rand Paul, an acknowledged opponent of this part of the Act, blocked the extension of section 215 on Sunday.
It officially a new day in America. A day with more liberty and freedom. #StandWithRand— Dr. Rand Paul (@RandPaul) June 1, 2015
The government, however, is committed to such powers, and reports said that president Obama stressed the importance of surveillance on Friday.
The authorities are unlikely to drop the push for more control over the internet and its communications.
WARNING: Sections of the #PatriotAct expire at midnight, putting all of us in extreme danger of actually having basic constitutional rights.— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) June 1, 2015
"I don't want us to be in a situation in which, for a certain period of time, those authorities go away, and suddenly we're dark, and heaven forbid we've got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who was engaged in dangerous activity but we didn't do so simply because of inaction of the Senate," Obama said, according to a report on the Politico website.
"So I have indicated to [senators that] I expect them to take action and take action swiftly."
The ending of the bulk surveillance has not cooled concerns at rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which pointed out that there are still many surveillance options open to the government.
"The story being spun by the defenders of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the Obama administration is that, if the law sunsets entirely, the government will lose critical surveillance capabilities. The fearmongering includes president Obama," the EFF said.
"So how real is this concern? Not very. Section 215 is only one of a number of largely overlapping surveillance authorities, and the loss of the current version of the law will leave the government with a range of tools that is still incredibly powerful."
However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that any positive action in the direction of freedom is a good move.
US Patriot Act is almost certain to expire in a few hours--an important symbolic victory, but almost all NSA mass spying will continue.— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 1, 2015
"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," said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington legislative office.
"Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far-reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration."
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