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(Washington, DC) – The United States Congress has taken a first small step toward curbing excessive government surveillance by passing the USA Freedom Act. The law imposes long overdue limits on the scope of records collection and new measures to increase transparency and oversight of surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA).

An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland. Handout via Reuters

“The USA Freedom Act’s passage marks what could be a turn of the tide against mass surveillance in the US,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Although the bill’s reforms are only a modest first step, this is the first time Congress has affirmatively restrained the NSA since the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

The law only addresses one small part of the NSA’s mass surveillance apparatus first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden two years ago. Notably, it does not constrain surveillance under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act nor Executive Order 12333, the primary legal authorities used by the US government to justify mass violations of privacy of people outside US borders. The law also does not address many modern surveillance capabilities, from use of malware to interception of all mobile calls in a country and compromising the security of equipment and communications services.

Congress and the Obama administration should end all mass surveillance programs that unnecessarily and disproportionately intrude on the privacy of millions of people worldwide, Human Rights Watch said.

“Congress needs to act to safeguard the privacy of people outside US borders,” Wong said. “The fundamental rights to privacy and free expression so sacred to Americans are no less precious to citizens of other countries, who also shouldn’t be subject to mass surveillance. Comprehensive surveillance reforms are urgently needed to move beyond fixes at the margins.”

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