Demonstrators carry signs at "Stop Watching Us: A Rally Against Mass Surveillance" march near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 26, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

This week, Human Rights Watch took two major steps to challenge the US government’s invasive and unrestrained collection of our personal data.  HRW, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sued the US Drug Enforcement Agency for illegally collecting records of our international calls as part of a secret mass surveillance program that has been ongoing for two decades.  We have also joined a broad coalition urging the US Congress to stop bulk collection of our personal data under the USA Patriot Act.  With a key legislative deadline coming up fast, we’re calling on Congress not to reauthorize Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act as it currently exists and take up meaningful surveillance reform instead. 

It has been nearly two years since Edward Snowden exposed the US government’s voracious appetite for our digital data. Yet Congress has failed to pass any reforms to rein in the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs. The USA Freedom Act, which Senator Patrick Leahy introduced last year, aimed to end bulk collection of metadata and other records and introduce additional transparency and oversight mechanisms for a range of surveillance activities. But despite broad bipartisan support for the bill, it failed to move forward before the end of the last legislative session.

Congress is now up against a looming deadline: Unless policymakers act, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, along with several other provisions, will expire on June 1. The government has secretly interpreted Section 215 to justify the collection of millions of phone records of people who have not been suspected of any wrongdoing. Records of calls to your therapist, intimate friends, “anonymous” suicide hotline, an abortion clinic, a journalist, or a union organizer are fair game for intelligence agencies. While the NSA has defended Section 215 as a key counter-terrorism tool, two independent oversight bodies have found that the phone metadata program has provided no unique value in countering terrorist threats. 

Some advocates have expressed concern this program could continue even if Section 215 expires since the law allows investigations that began before the sunset to remain in place. But in a welcome statement in March, the Obama administration unequivocally asserted that if section 215 expires, the government will not continue the bulk telephony metadata program. 

The recent news coverage of the DEA’s bulk collection program only bolsters the case for reform.  The similarities between the DEA and NSA phone metadata programs are remarkable and former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker acknowledged, “It’s very hard to see [the DEA operation] as anything other than the precursor” to the NSA’s programs. Government officials have stated that the program has been “suspended” as of September 2013 and we’re suing to make sure operations have actually ceased and cannot be restarted again. 

But crucially, the government itself decided the program was not so critical that it could end it in the wake of the Snowden disclosures---according to news reports, quite likely to counter demands to end the NSA program, whose extraordinary sweep was justified by the “special” threat of terrorism.  This action calls into question the necessity of bulk collection programs altogether.  Where there are real indications of wrongdoing, whether terrorism or crime, the government can still get authorization to track suspicious networks without violating the privacy of everyone inside the US who makes a call to any of over 100 countries. 

Congress should not endorse the status quo next month: it is time to rein in all mass surveillance, starting with Section 215. Lawmakers should oppose any efforts to reauthorize Section 215 in its present form. Instead, Congress should take up meaningful reform that would ensure bulk collection of phone records does not continue and impose meaningful transparency and accountability constraints to prevent these programs from reemerging in the future. 

For more information about the Fight 215 campaign to end mass surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, see https://fight215.org