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Reining In the N.S.A.

The House N.S.A. bill is an ultra light version of surveillance reform — tens of thousands of Americans still need to worry that the details of their lives will end up in a database. The Senate must fix it.

Published: May 27, 2014

Crossposted from The New York Times Room for Debate.

Last week the House voted to limit the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of telephone records. But the bill approved was scaled back at the last minute and was sharply criticized by the technology sector, privacy advocates and others. Is the legislation heading now to the Senate strong enough to protect privacy? Or is there more that should be done to limit surveillance?

Faiza Patel and other national security experts weigh in at The New York Times Room for Debate series.

Light Version of Oversight

By Faiza Patel

The USA Freedom Act passed by the House — advertised as ending bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under the Patriot Act — barely scratches the surface. Its main achievement: requiring the foreign intelligence court to vet N.S.A. selection terms used to sift through Americans’ phone, Internet and financial records. Sounds good, right? That’s because the N.S.A. talks about selection terms as being things like phone numbers or email addresses, suggesting that they are targeted at specific bad guys. But in negotiations, the administration insisted on leaving open the definition of selectors. As Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, explained, it is now “so vague that it could be used to collect all of the phone records in a particular area code, or all of the credit card records from a particular state.”

Compounding the problem, the bill allows the N.S.A. to collect information about people far removed from those picked up by its use of open-ended selectors. While the bill limits the N.S.A. to gathering records of persons two degrees removed from those identified by the initial search, tens of thousands of Americans still need to worry that the details of their lives will end up in a database. All this information about law abiding Americans then becomes fair game for N.S.A. searches, with no court checking.

The bill leaves untouched N.S.A. authority to search another vast trove of information: what we say on the phone and write in emails to friends and family abroad. In targeting foreigners overseas, the agency collects masses of American communications. To top it off, it has arrogated the authority to electronically analyze all our overseas communications to see if they mention anything of interest to the agency. This could include not just information relating to terrorism, but also the emails of American journalists, relief workers and corporate executives not suspected of wrongdoing. And once the N.S.A. achieves its ambition to “collect it all,” its analysts rummage through without outside supervision.

By pushing this ultra light version of surveillance reform, the intelligence community confirmed suspicions that it intends to continue business as usual. It’s now up to the Senate to bring the N.S.A.’s operations in line with a fundamental premise of our democracy: The government shouldn’t snoop on people unless it has reason to suspect them of wrongdoing.