House votes to outlaw NSA's bulk collection of phone records

The USA Freedom Act would require the agency to get court approval to collect records on a case-by-case basis

By , IDG News Service |  Unified Communications

A U.S. House of Representatives committee has taken a major step toward outlawing the NSA's controversial bulk collection of telephone and other business records generated by U.S. residents.

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted 32-0 to approve an amended version of the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would require the National Security Agency to get case-by-case approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before collecting the telephone or business records of a U.S. resident. The committee's vote sends the bill to the House floor; a similar bill is awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill would limit the controversial bulk collection program by allowing the FBI, asking on behalf of the NSA, to request U.S. phone records from carriers only if there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that the information sought pertains to a foreign power, an agent of a foreign power, or a person in contact with a foreign power.

The bill is similar in some ways to NSA surveillance reforms proposed by President Barack Obama in January, but would write those reforms into law.

"The best course is to trust but codify," said Representative Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat. Scott was referencing former President Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify" quote about the former Soviet Union.

The USA Freedom Act, introduced last October, would prohibit bulk collection under the business-records provision of the Patriot Act, the law cited by NSA and Department of Justice officials as giving them authority for the telephone records collection program exposed by leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The bill would also prohibit bulk collection targeting U.S. residents in parts of another statute, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which the NSA has used largely to target overseas communications. The bill would take the phone records database out of NSA control and leave the records with carriers.

The USA Freedom Act also establishes an office of special advocate to argue on behalf of privacy rights before the FISA Court.

Congress, in passing the Patriot Act following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., never intended to allow the NSA to collect U.S. residents' data in bulk, said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and main author of the Patriot Act. The NSA and other U.S. agencies have stretched the wording in the Patriot Act, allowing the collection of business records relevant to an ongoing terrorist investigation to include broad ongoing collection, he said.

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