It’s been nearly a year since Edward Snowden first began revealing just how abusive the government’s surveillance programs really are. Back then, Snowden was asked what his greatest fear was. While acknowledging obvious concerns for his own safety, he ultimately gave a much nobler answer: that “nothing will change.”
While there is no doubt that the conversation around government surveillance has changed significantly in the time since Snowden’s disclosures, actual changes to the law have been much harder to come by. But ever the optimists here at the ACLU, we are hopeful that Congress is finally getting ready to take real action.
Last week the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, and much to our surprise, the House Intelligence Committee quickly followed suit. The bill will now head to the full House of Representatives for a vote.
If passed, the USA FREEDOM Act would help stop the government from sweeping up personal information without having to present a compelling reason to a judge. It would end bulk collection under Patriot Act Section 215 by requiring the government to show that the records it seeks are from specific accounts before it can demand personal information. It would also increase transparency by requiring the government to provide additional reporting on its surveillance programs to Congress and to the public.
As you might expect, this bill is not perfect. It lacks some of the key privacy protections included in the original draft, and it does not do everything that we believe must be done to fully protect our privacy. Specifically, it does not go far enough to ensure that judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are more than just rubber stamps. It also does not limit the circumstances under which the government can gather records more than one "hop" out from a target to help ensure Americans' information is not unnecessarily swept up.
Still, in spite of its shortcomings, the committees' passage of the USA FREEDOM Act is a significant moment. Surveillance reform is highly unlikely to happen with one super-awesome bill that does everything we want all at once. We can’t let that stop us from making real progress. If the USA FREEDOM Act becomes law, we will have taken a truly important legislative step towards ensuring that Edward Snowden’s fear of complete inaction is not realized.