(Washington, DC) – The United States Senate should definitively end bulk data collection and reject a new bill that would endorse and extend the National Security Agency’s mass violation of privacy rights in the US, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 21, 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr introduced the bill, S. 1035, which would reauthorize without reforms section 215 of the USA Patriot Act for five more years. As revealed by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the US government secretly interpreted section 215 to justify the collection of millions of phone records of people in the US who have not been suspected of any wrongdoing. These provisions are scheduled to expire on June 1.
“Senator McConnell’s bill endorses the invasive status quo with no end to bulk collection, no accountability, and no reforms to prevent future secret mass surveillance programs under the Patriot Act,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The proposed law would affirm the NSA’s violation of millions of people’s privacy.”
The USA Patriot Act was drafted and signed into law the month after the attacks of September 11, 2001. As a critical safeguard, Congress incorporated a sunset clause in the act to ensure that certain sections, including section 215, would expire. This provision was meant to ensure that section 215 would be reexamined once its full consequences for rights were better understood.
Documents released by Snowden have demonstrated the harm section 215 has done to human rights in the US. Under this legal authority, intelligence agencies have amassed private phone records of potentially millions of people in the US who are not linked to crime or terrorism.
Human Rights Watch has documented how mass surveillance, combined with a government crackdown on leaks, has also hampered journalists’ ability to report on matters of public concern, as surveillance has intimidated sources, making them hesitant to speak even on unclassified matters. As a result, mass surveillance has undermined media freedom, the public’s right to know, and the ability of Americans to hold the US government to account.
While the NSA has defended section 215 as a key counterterrorism tool, two independent oversight bodies with access to classified information have found that the phone records program has provided no unique value in countering terrorist threats and have called for an end to the program.
Members of Congress are currently negotiating a bill, potentially a rehabilitated USA Freedom Act, that could introduce surveillance reforms, though the details of the proposed law are uncertain. A previous version introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy sought to end domestic bulk collection of records under section 215, and to improve transparency and accountability over national security surveillance and intelligence gathering. Leahy’s bill did not move forward in the Senate last year despite broad bipartisan support.
“Congress should not ignore the serious harm to rights that bulk collection has caused or pretend the debate that Snowden sparked never happened,” Wong said. “Senator McConnell’s bill is a rebuke to the millions of people whose data has been swept up for no justifiable reason. Congress should take up real reform that protects privacy instead.”