Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 31, 2014

New Surveillance Overhaul Bill Coming From Sen. Leahy

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to introduce new surveillance overhaul legislation.

According to a background document on the bill, the measure by Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., would ban bulk collection of telephone metadata by requiring the “government to narrowly limit the scope of its collection, and makes clear that the government may not collect all information relating to a particular service provider or to a broad geographic region, such as a city, zip code or area code.”

Introduction of a new bill had been anticipated.

“If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act 13 years ago,” Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement.  “This is an historic opportunity, and I am grateful that the bill has the support of the administration, a wide range of privacy and civil liberties groups, and the technology industry.”

The bill builds on legislation the House passed in May as well as the original bill he introduced last October with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., Leahy said on the floor. Leahy added that he continued to prefer the original version of the bill, but that “we’re running short on time” in the current Congress.

CQ Roll Call’s Rob Margetta writes that Leahy’s current bill includes some key differences from what the House passed, including a narrowing of the definition of “specific selection terms,” or data that serves as beginnings of investigations. A change to that definition before House passage triggered some privacy groups to drop their support of the House bill, Margetta writes:

The change was significant enough that some privacy groups revoked their support for the House bill, saying it would allow the use of selector terms as broad as entire area codes, a charge the bill’s backers denied. Leahy was among the critics, saying the last-minute changes removed “some important reforms.”

But now Leahy says his measure contains a narrower definition and the support of the White House. It “makes clear that the government may not collect all information relating to a particular service provider or to a broad geographic region, such as a city, ZIP code or area code,” according to information from Leahy’s office.

The new bill has the backing of  technology and civil liberties groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Information and Technology Industry Council and the Business Software Alliance.

“This legislation is an important step toward restoring public trust in the underpinnings of the digital economy,” said Business Software Alliance president and CEO Victoria Espinel in a statement.

In a statement, Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office said the bill wasn’t perfect, but that it was the “beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001.”

But she also said there’s more work to be done on the issue: “The Senate bill is an improvement over the version passed by the House, but problems remain. It is important that the public understand that there is much more work to be done to narrow the government’s overbroad surveillance authorities to bring them in line with our Constitution and values. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have miles left to go.”

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